Researchers are becoming more aware of multiple connections to “the gut,” such as the gut-brain axis, gut-skin axis, gut-heart axis, etc. The gut is responsible for nutrient absorption and the elimination of toxins. If you do not use the bathroom often enough, your intestines’ toxins can become reabsorbed.
What Is The Gut-Brain Axis?
The gut-brain axis is a part of the enteric nervous system and is often called “the second brain,” it is a part of the autonomic nervous system. The enteric nervous system is a part of what causes gastrointestinal discomfort or if you have a neurodegenerative disorder (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis). (Chalazonitis & Rao, 2018)
Disorders that disrupt the Central Nervous System (CNS) can affect the Enteric Nervous System. For example, diseases that begin in the gut can travel to the brain via the enteric nervous system.
A newer term called psychobiotics refers to outside factors that influence the makeup of our microbiome and how they impact mental health.
How Does Leaky Gut Affect The Gut-Brain Axis?
A Leaky Gut is when there is intestinal permeability (holes in the intestinal lining). A leaky gut affects the gut-brain axis because it decreases nutrient absorption, necessary for brain health, natural immunity, and more. It also allows toxins to be more easily absorbed into the bloodstream instead of filtered and excreted.
90% of serotonin (your happy neurotransmitter) is from the gut. This is why you get “hangry” and why certain foods are comfort foods because they give us boosts of serotonin. In addition, carbohydrate consumption increases serotonin through insulin secretion and the “plasma tryptophan ratio.” This is why people overindulge and eat carbohydrate-rich foods because of increased serotonin.
However, there are other healthier ways to naturally increase your serotonin and dopamine! Dopamine is a motivation neurotransmitter, and it is advanced through exercise, drug use, and additional stimulation. Unfortunately, serotonin and dopamine are low in individuals who suffer from anxiety and depression.
Poor gut health can also lead to allergies, asthma, auto-immune disease, and a weak immune system.
What Causes Leaky Gut?
Many doctors will deny the term “Leaky Gut Syndrome” because it is still a newer term; however, more research is available. A leaky gut can be caused by many different things, including the following:
- Celiac Disease (Gluten Intolerance)
- Food Sensitivities
- Standard American Diet
Gut Health Tips
Maintaining a healthy gut can improve the health of your gut-brain axis and can affect your body in many ways. To heal your leaky gut, start with avoiding the list mentioned above and adding in:
Prebiotics & Probiotics
Prebiotics are a type of fiber that helps feed probiotics, but not all fibers are considered prebiotics. For example, inulin is a commonly used prebiotic, and it can be found in artichokes, onions, chicory, garlic, asparagus, etc.
Probiotics are healthy bacteria that come in a variety of strain variations. There are over 1,000 species of bacteria in the gut, but most individuals only have 160 at a time. (Berding et al., 2021)
Two of the most common types of probiotic supplements are lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. Lactobacillus strains are for upper digestive health and women’s health. In comparison, Bifidobacterium strains are more beneficial for relieving constipation and other bowel disorders.
If you are taking an antibiotic, make sure to wait 2 hours before consuming a probiotic supplement because it wipes out all bacteria, including the beneficial bacteria.
Fermented Foods/ Drinks
Kombucha, Kimchi, sauerkraut and Kefir are different foods/drinks that are fermented. I’m sure you’ve heard of eating your yogurt because it has probiotics; however, the amount is minimal. One of the benefits of consuming these fermented foods is that probiotics can thrive and help heal your gut. Kombucha is a fermented tea; kimchi is fermented cruciferous vegetables, and kefir is fermented milk.
Bone broth is rich in minerals, protein, and anti-inflammatory properties. Brain inflammation contributes to many mental health disorders such as ADHD, anxiety, and depression. Bone broth increases the antimicrobial effect of macrophages. (Mar-Solís et al., 2021)
Foods are rich in vitamins and minerals such as L-glutamine and zinc, immune-boosting properties, and healing of the gut lining. Magnesium restores microbiota in individuals who suffer from inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD) and colitis. (Del Chierico et al., 2021)
Whole foods contain vitamins and minerals and enzymes that help your body break down food properly.
Avoid highly processed foods and sugars because these can lead to small intestinal bacteria overload (SIBO). A Western diet with higher amounts feeds harmful bacteria.
How To Cope With Stress
Many people say, “I just need to get rid of my stress” or “I will do those fun things when I get rid of my stress.”
However, stress will always be in our lives; the only difference is we have to learn how to deal with it better. Stress impacts gut health, immune function, hormones, and more. Cognitive function is impaired after what the brain senses as a stressful event. The amygdala takes over and tries to protect the “self” in the current moment and suppress cognitive processing. (Joëls et al., 2018)
Our thoughts affect our emotions, which affect our behaviors, and our behaviors can affect our thoughts which affect our emotions. Therefore if we choose healthy behaviors, we can minimize some of the negative or stress-inducing thoughts.
Multiple aspects of stress, such as physical discomfort and pain, can contribute to anxiety, depression, and possible hopelessness. This is also how digestive issues can contribute to mental illness because when we are in pain, we typically are not in the best of moods. So, taking care of our gut health is essential to help us have a healthy mindset.
An important idea to keep in mind is that every day we wake up, our day is full of choices. We choose to live in an anxious state of mind or be grateful for all that we have around us. We can choose to do things outside of our comfort zone and push ourselves or stay within reach of what is familiar. We also have the opportunities to choose to convince ourselves of more positive perspectives than what information in the world around us may say.
Thoughts that I have found to be very freeing are “that we do not control other people’s emotions.” Also, ideally, we would love to have everyone love us and everything we do, but that is an unrealistic expectation. Lastly, we can not assume someone’s intentions even if they have done something in the past; we have to allow them to make a different choice without assuming we know their intentions. This does not mean you have to be ignorant of the information around you, but instead, you can become mindful of it but not fearful of it. Essentially since someone can not “make you sad” or they can not “make you happy,” those come from within, and we must do our best to learn how to create that.
Dealing with stress can also come with a “chemical” aspect, and psychology theorist Abraham Maslow created the hierarchy of needs. This essentially says that we need food, safety, love, friendship, self-esteem, etc., to reach self-actualization and fulfillment.
This is the importance of taking care of the gut-brain axis to have a healthy mind and body connection. If we check these boxes and take care of ourselves “chemically, ” we can support our mental health more easily.
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system that calms your body down. It manages mood, heart rate, and digestion, and establishes a connection in the gut-brain axis. Stimulating the vagus nerve has shown promising relief for individuals suffering from mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and even inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD). Deep breathing can alleviate depressive symptoms by increasing vagal tone leading to improved cognition and mood. (Breit et al., 2018)
The gut-brain axis is a critical part of the nervous system, and it is best taken care of if our gut health, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are healthy. So take care of it, enjoy life, and worry less about what people think if you want to be healthier and happier.
- Berding, K., Vlckova, K., Marx, W., Schellekens, H., Stanton, C., Clarke, G., Jacka, F., Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2021). Diet and the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: Sowing the Seeds of Good Mental Health. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 12(4), 1239–1285. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmaa181
- Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 44. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
- Chalazonitis, A., & Rao, M. (2018). Enteric nervous system manifestations of neurodegenerative disease. Brain Research, 1693(Pt B), 207–213. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainres.2018.01.011
- Del Chierico, F., Trapani, V., Petito, V., Reddel, S., Pietropaolo, G., Graziani, C., Masi, L., Gasbarrini, A., Putignani, L., Scaldaferri, F., & Wolf, F. I. (2021). Dietary Magnesium Alleviates Experimental Murine Colitis through Modulation of Gut Microbiota. Nutrients, 13(12), 4188. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13124188
- Joëls, M., Karst, H., & Sarabdjitsingh, R. A. (2018). The stressed brain of humans and rodents. Acta physiologica (Oxford, England), 223(2), e13066. https://doi.org/10.1111/apha.13066
- Mar-Solís, L. M., Soto-Domínguez, A., Rodríguez-Tovar, L. E., Rodríguez-Rocha, H., García-García, A., Aguirre-Arzola, V. E., Zamora-Ávila, D. E., Garza-Arredondo, A. J., & Castillo-Velázquez, U. (2021). Analysis of the Anti-Inflammatory Capacity of Bone Broth in a Murine Model of Ulcerative Colitis. Medicina (Kaunas, Lithuania), 57(11), 1138. https://doi.org/10.3390/medicina57111138
Megan is the owner and founder of Holistic Momma. Her background is in the natural health industry and her education is in psychology and a current degree program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She writes about natural ways to cope with your mental health, in addition to how moms can communicate with and take care of their children in a loving and effective manner.