“I can’t hit the neighborhood squirrel!” – I exclaimed. I was driving down my street only to have one of the neighborhood squirrels quickly dart in front of my car. Luckily, I didn’t hit the little guy but I sure did get scared and so did my stomach. I had immediately felt a rush of adrenaline and my stomach dropped as I saw that squirrel run across the street. This is a prime example of the connection that we have with your mind-gut or the gut-brain connection.
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Our gut is intimately connected with our mind and vice versa.
With everything going on right now due to quarantine and COVID it’s easy to say we are all experiencing stress that is out of the ordinary. While we navigate this new normal you might notice that your gut feels a bit different and this may be in part due to the new and extra stress we are experiencing.
What is the gut-brain connection?
It may not seem obvious or intuitive, but your body is interconnected in many ways and more research is focusing on the “microbiota-gut-brain axis.” It’s a very complex connection between your gut, its microbes, and your brain. This new field has been called a “paradigm shift in neuroscience” 1.
There are several ways that we’re beginning to understand how our gut microbes can affect our brain. One is via the vagus nerve, which is a nerve that directly connects your gut to your brain. The vagus nerve has a direct impact on our gut from affecting the secretion of stomach acid to affecting our gut hormones.
Another way our gut microbes affect our brain is through “biochemical messengers.” Biochemicals that are made in your gut and travel throughout the body to communicate with other organs, including your brain. Examples of biochemicals include short chain fatty acids, cytokines, and even tryptophan (the amino acid that the neurotransmitters melatonin and serotonin are made from).
The exciting thing is that this connection may help us with mood and stress, but the microbiota-gut-brain axis may one day prove to be helpful for other conditions like autism and Parkinson’s.
Mood, Stress, and Microbes
There is promising research that has shown a connection between how we feel and our gut microbes.
Several studies show that stressed rodents not only have increased stress hormones and stressed behaviors; but, they also have different gut microbes! This has been studied, to a small extent, in people too.
But, can it work the other way around? Can changing our gut microbes affect our moods and stress responses?
Studies of rodents that grow up without any gut microbes at all (in a “bacteria-free” environment) respond to stress more than mice with normal gut microbes. Then, when they’re given either a probiotic or gut microbes from non-stressed mice, their stress responses often go back to normal. “Gut microbiota and probiotics alter behavior and brain neurochemistry”2. That’s a pretty powerful statement.
Many animal studies show positive effects on behavior when they get probiotic supplements. For example, after a probiotic, stressed rats had lower levels of both stress hormones and an inflammatory molecule associated with depression (“LPS” – lipopolysaccharide) 2.
Human studies show that after a few weeks of taking probiotic foods or supplements, healthy people have reduced stress hormones, feelings of stress, negative thoughts, and sad moods3.
One fascinating study showed that when people took probiotics, brain MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) tests showed reduced brain activity for negative and aggressive thoughts3!
Keep in mind we can’t directly translate test completed with rats to humans. Also, human studies have sometimes shown conflicting research on the use of probiotics. One of the hard parts of doing studies with probiotics is that there are so many different strains and strain combinations. This makes it hard to pinpoint what is working and the effect it has on people.
So, what can you do to nurture your mind-gut connection?
Here are 5 tips/tools that you can use to help nurture our mind-gut connection. The easy thing about these tools is that you can do them anytime anywhere.
I want you to stop reading this for a second and take a nice deep breath in through your nose and slowly out your mouth. Feel good? Breathing can be instantly calming for our gut and nervous system. In fact, there was a study done with people who had IBD (Irritable bowel disease) and found that improvement in their mood (such as less anxiety and depression) as well as physical improvements (with bowel symptoms and pain) when they completed a workshop using breath, movement and mediation5.
Meditation does not mean you your mind is blank of thoughts. A lot of us struggle with the idea that to be “good” at meditating our mind has to be completely blank. Not true. Meditation is a chance for us to live solely in the moment and bring awareness to our bodies. It gives us space to relax at the moment. Thoughts will come and when they do imagine them as clouds slowly drifting away.
We are still learning all the different microbes in our gut and what how they function. Eating a variety of foods encourages a healthy wide variety of microbes. It’s so easy to get caught up eating the same veggies or fruits every week so I encourage you to try adding some new ways into your routine. I had no idea that I loved beets until I decided to try it at a salad bar one day! Next time you are at the grocery store pick up a new veggie you’ve never tried. Google some recipes and pick one that sounds good.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the negative news. By incorporating gratitude in our life we can stop ourselves from going down the rabbit hole of doom and gloom and instead shift from negativity to positivity. A study even found that a gratitude meditation positively impacted overall well-being and self-motivation4.
Have you ever eaten a bag of chips while watching TV and not even realizing you ate the last chip? Yup. We’ve all been there. That is a perfect example of mindless eating. Mindful eating can be a great exercise to help us tune back into the moment and connect with our food. Next time you eat take a second to sit and explore the food with all your senses. Let tasting the food be the last thing you do.
Which of these have you tried or going to try? My advice is to pick the one that sounds the easiest and start there. The trick to make these tools work for you is consistency. It’s not a one and done situation. You have to put in the time and practice to reap the benefits.
- Dinan TG1, Cryan JF. (2017). The Microbiome-Gut-Brain Axis in Health and Disease. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2017 Mar;46(1):77-89. doi: 10.1016/j.gtc.2016.09.007. LINK: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0889855316300826
- Ait-Belgnaoui, A., Durand, H., Cartier, et al (2012). Prevention of gut leakiness by a probiotic treatment leads to attenuated HPA response to an acute psychological stress in rats. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 37(11):1885-95. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.03.024. LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22541937
- Steenbergen, L., Sellaro, R., van Hemert, S., Bosch, J.A. & Colzato, L.S. (2015). A randomized controlled trial to test the effect of multispecies probiotics on cognitive reactivity to sad mood.
Brain Behav Immun. 48:258-64. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2015.04.003. LINK: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0889159115000884
- Kyeong, S., Kim, J., Kim, D. J., Kim, H. E., & Kim, J. J. (2017). Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Scientific reports, 7(1), 5058. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-05520-9
- Gerbarg, P. L., Jacob, V. E., Stevens, L., Bosworth, B. P., Chabouni, F., DeFilippis, E. M., Warren, R., Trivellas, M., Patel, P. V., Webb, C. D., Harbus, M. D., Christos, P. J., Brown, R. P., & Scherl, E. J. (2015). The Effect of Breathing, Movement, and Meditation on Psychological and Physical Symptoms and Inflammatory Biomarkers in Inflammatory Bowel Disease: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Inflammatory bowel diseases, 21(12), 2886–2896. https://doi.org/10.1097/MIB.0000000000000568
- 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
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.