The mind-gut connection is a concept that science has gotten a grasp and acceptance of, only in the last few years. The brain has intimate connections with the gut and another entity in our gut, called the second brain. Like the brain, our gut is full of nerves called the enteric nervous system, or ENS. This is what is also referred to as the “second brain”. It is 100 million nerves sandwiched between the layers of the gut.
One of the biggest nerves connecting the gut and the brain is called the vagus nerve. It facilitates the communication between the two organs. This nerve travels from our brain stem down into a large number of organs and tissues such as the gut, the lungs and the heart. This connection between the brain and gut affects our digestion, our moods, and also the way we think which includes our mental health.
There is a strong relationship between having mental health problems and having gastrointestinal symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation, and/or diarrhoea. In order to support healthy vagus nerve function to optimise mental wellbeing, it is essential to not only practise lifestyle habits that stimulate it, but also to take care of the digestive function.
The strong connection between the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system enables a troubled gut to send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. There is a direct connection between our gut microbes and the functioning of the brain. This explains why anxiety messes with our stomachs or why a messed up gut and indigestion can make us feel irritable, anxious or even depressed.
The line of communication between the gut, the microbes in the gut and the brain using biochemical signals is called the ‘Gut Brain Axis’. The gut brain axis transforms information via the vagus nerve from food to feelings. Disrupting this connection can cause seemingly unrelated ailments. So, what can cause this disruption?
Processed foods containing chemicals like emulsifiers, stabilisers, etc.
Foods treated with pesticides
When the body is exposed to stress, it goes through a series of changes. Stress also causes the body to release cortisol. To combat stress the body halts our rest and digest system. The body gets into a flight or fight mode and is unable to break down and absorb properly the foods that we eat. So stress messes up our gut which messes with our hormones, causing more anxiety and stress, which further affects our gut. If our gut microbiome is imbalanced, then our overall mood can get affected. But knowing that this cycle exists can also help in breaking out of it.
A balanced gut microbiome can improve our stress resilience. For this, we need to ensure that we remove toxic foods from our diet that can cause inflammation. The importance of gut health can never be emphasised enough. Improving gut health subsequently improves not just our physical health, but our mental health as well.