Imagine if eating differently could elevate your moods or improve your brain and mental health. (It can.) Or if reducing stress can also reduce gut symptoms. (It does.)
The gut and brain are interconnected more than we previously thought—new research is proving it. These discoveries have huge potential to help people with gut issues with help from their brain. And help people with brain or mood issues with help from their gut.
Your gut is (partially) controlled by your brain
Did you know that even just thinking about eating can cause the stomach to release juices to get itself ready for food? Yup! And your gut is so much more than digestion because your gut is also sensitive to emotions. Think of that time you saw your high school crush and those butterflies you felt in your stomach.
Several studies show that stress may be an important—often overlooked—reason for gut issues. According to Harvard Health, “Stress can trigger and worsen gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms, and vice versa.”
This is why it’s so important to look at your stress and emotions if you have gut issues. Gut health is about honoring the physical and emotional parts of your being. Many studies have found that stress reduction techniques can lead to greater improvement in gut symptoms compared to conventional medical treatment alone.
Before we go over how to do this, let’s look at a bit more of the biology behind the gut-brain axis.
Your nervous systems
There are two main parts of your “main” nervous system. One is the part that we can consciously control, like when we chew your favorite food (my fave is pizza), or you walk your dog. This is called the somatic nervous system.
The other part of our nervous system controls all of the things necessary for life and that we don’t have to think about doing. These include processes that happen in the background without any thought: breathing, heart beating, sweating, or shivering. This part of the nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system (because it works automatically).
The autonomic system regulates our body’s functions by either speeding things up or slowing them down. When things are sped up, like when our “fight or flight” reactions kick in, this is done by the sympathetic part. We feel this happening when we sense danger (real or not) and get stressed. Our heart beats faster and we breathe heavier. It’s the fight or flight response, so our body focuses on ensuring our muscles get enough blood and oxygen to work hard.
Slowing things down, on the other hand, is done by the parasympathetic part. This happens when we’re relaxing or after the danger has passed and we start to calm down. Our heart, lungs, and muscles rest and our digestive systems do their jobs much better. In this phase, we’re secreting more digestive juices to break down food, we’re absorbing more nutrients, and we have lower levels of inflammation in our gut. That’s why this is called the “rest and digest” phase.
Both parts of the autonomic nervous system—the sympathetic and parasympathetic—interact with the gut. This means that when our body is stressed (whether physically or emotionally) we can experience gut symptoms and it is when we are relaxed our digestion and gut does what it’s meant to do.
Your gut is your “second brain”
In addition to your “main” nervous system, your gut has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system spans your whole digestive tract from your esophagus, along your stomach, intestines, and colon. This nervous system is sometimes referred to as the “second brain” because it works in the same way that the “main” one does. It has 100 million nerve cells (called neurons) that communicate with each other using biochemicals called neurotransmitters.
Your enteric nervous system gets input from both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, so it can speed up or slow down when it has to. It also has a “mind” of its own and can function independently of them.
This complex system is important because of how complex our digestive processes are. For example, after we eat, the neurons in our enteric system tell the muscle cells of the stomach and intestines to contract to move food along to the next part. As our gut does this, our enteric nervous system uses neurotransmitters to communicate with the central nervous system.
Your enteric nervous system is also very closely linked to your immune system. This is because a lot of bacteria can enter the body through the mouth and end up in the gut. You have a large immune presence there to help fight them off before they become a larger problem and infect other parts of the body. The cells of the immune system provide another path for the gut to communicate up to the brain. They relay information like when they detect an infection or when your stomach is bloated, so your brain knows, too.
Even the friendly gut bacteria (gut microbiota) that help us digest and make certain nutrients play a role in communicating with the brain. They make neurotransmitters, some of which are known to influence our moods.
The gut-brain axis
This intimate and complex connection between your gut and brain is called the gut-brain axis. And we now know that the signals go in both directions: from your brain down to your gut, and from your gut up to your brain.
This is where we see the link between digestive issues and brain, stress, and mood issues.
When someone is stressed enough that they get into the “fight or flight” reaction, digestion slows right down to allow the muscles to fight or flee. The same physical reaction appears whether the stress is from a real threat or a perceived one. This means that your body reacts the same whether you’re facing a real life-threatening situation or whether you’re super-stressed about a looming deadline. This disruption of the digestive process can cause pain, nausea, or other related issues.
Meanwhile, it’s known that experiencing strong or frequent digestive issues can increase your stress levels and moods. People with depression and anxiety have more GI symptoms, and vice versa.
How stress and emotions affect your gut
Because of these strong connections between the gut and brain, it’s easy to see how stress and other emotions can affect the gut. Things like fear, sadness, anger, or feeling anxious or depressed are often felt in the gut. When they cause our digestive systems to speed up (or slow down) too much, this can influence pain and bloating. It can also allow germs to cross the lining of the gut and get into the bloodstream, activating our immune systems. It can increase inflammation in the gut or even change the microbiota.
This is why stress and strong emotions can contribute to or worsen a number of gut issues such as Crohn’s disease, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or food allergies or sensitivities.
Then, these gut issues are communicated to the brain, increasing the stress response and affecting our moods.
This loop of stress and gut issues and more stress and more gut issues becomes a vicious cycle.
New research shows that changes to the gut’s inflammation or microbiome can strongly affect many other parts of the body as well—not just the brain and mood. They’re also associated with depression and heart disease.
How the Mindful Gut Method helps you.
Given the intimate connection between our brain and gut the mindful gut method hits on both aspects of the brain-gut axis. No matter where you are in your gut health journey, from no gut issues to gut healing, the mindful gut method can help.
The mindful gut method is a holistic way of improving gut health and is built on five principles (you can check out more about the mindful gut method here). Kitchen confidence is one, and probably my favorite, pillar of the mindful gut method and can be a huge help with improving the gut-brain axis.
For better gut and brain health there are two foods you want to focus on, eating more fiber and fermented foods. The best fiber foods are fruits and veggies. It’s not super surprising and that’s because most of us (myself included) aren’t always eating the recommended amount of fruits and veggies. Fermented foods can include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, or sauerkraut.
So to inspire some kitchen confidence I created a mini recipe book for you! These recipes are straight from my gut health meal plan and are full of fiber and feature fermented foods.
Mini Recipe Book
I created a new mini recipe book to go along with the blog post featuring fiber and fermented foods.
Cleveland Clinic. (2016, October 6). Gut-Brain Connection. Retrieved from
Harvard Health. (n.d.). The gut-brain connection. Retrieved from
Harvard Health. (2019, August 21). Stress and the sensitive gut. Retrieved from
Harvard Health. (2019, April 11). Brain-gut connection explains why integrative treatments can help relieve digestive ailments. Retrieved from
University of Calgary. (2018, December 1). Can a meal be medicine? How what we eat affects our gut health, which affects our wellness. Retrieved from
Amanda is a pizza loving registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in mindfulness and gut health. She quickly realized that gut health goes beyond the gut; it is also about honoring our gut feelings. She is the creator of The Mindful Gut™ which uses science and strategy to help people improve their gut health.