For a long time, scientists thought that stress and anxiety directly affected the gut. But it might be the other way around. Your gut is called the ‘second brain’ for a reason – a system of nerves, neurons and neurotransmitters travels the length of the entire digestive tract. Although this ‘second brain’ might not process thoughts, scientists now believe it is intimately connected with our feelings. As Scientific America put it ‘the enteric nervous system enables us to “feel” the inner world of our gut and its contents’.
So how can we keep our guts happy? Here’s four things to focus on:
High fibre foods, such as avocados, pears, and berries can help aid digestion. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon and mackerel and flax seeds can help reduced inflammation. Probiotic foods like sauerkraut and kimchi help to increase good gut flora. If you have IBS, starting a Low FODMAP diet can help you deduce what foods might be triggers.
By changing your diet, you might also be able to ease anxious or stressed feelings, for example foods rich in zinc (such as cashews, beef, and egg yolks) have been linked to lowered anxiety. If you’re feeling fancy, oysters are also zinc-rich options.
If changing your diet isn’t an option, you can also use supplements to help maintain a healthy gut. Mushrooms such as turkey tail contain prebiotics, which help nourish the bacteria in your belly and come in handy capsules. Ginger, mint and fennel are other amazing plant-based sources that aid digestion, soothe stomachs and reduce inflammation.
Stress has a powerful effect on our guts. It increases gut motility and fluids, and it can both delay emptying your stomachs or speed up events. More than that, stress has been linked to lots of tummy troubles including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD).
Breathing exercises can help to regulate your bodies stress response. For example, try doing deep belly breathing before eating to help get your digestive system sparked and ready to go.
Some also recommend practicing Progressive Muscle Relaxation Meditation (PMR), where you tense and relax muscle groups one at a time. It’s often used to help people sleep – but it can also help raise your awareness of which muscles are tensing during the day. Relaxing the body can help aid digestion.
Exercise can help enrich and promote gut bacteria diversity. We’re not talking intense crunches here – we’re talking low-impact, sustained movement. It needs to be something you can keep up so that the effects are maintained.
Movements such as walking, yoga and cycling – when integrated regularly into your routine – can help stimulate digestion. Keep in mind that a high-intensity workout might actually harm gut health as blood flow is shifted from your digestive tract to muscles!
You might be more familiar with the term ‘probiotics’ or ‘prebiotics’ – but ‘psychobiotics’ encompasses both and are specifically being studied for their anti-depressant effects.
In a small study in Belgium and Holland, 1,000 people were sampled and showed that the presence of some types of gut bacteria were consistently associated with a higher quality of life. It has also been found that certain probiotics can produce neurotransmitters that help produce serotonin and dopamine.
We might be a long way off from having tailor made bacterias that link to our mental health but the fact Western doctors and scientists have begun to take this seriously signals a huge shift. In the meantime, turning to more holistic movements, diet and supplements can help get us on the right path for a healthy gut and healthy mind.