Do you feel stressed and anxious even when there’s no obvious reason? Your mind races with constant thoughts of “what should have happened” and “what needs to happen next” and you feel restless and stressed. It’s difficult to be fully present with your children, spouse, family and friends, and instead you’re feeling easily irritated and overwhelmed.
Businesses and schools are now reopening and schedules are shifting and changing. Although there’s optimism in the air, there are new concerns about navigating daily life with more social interactions and busier schedules. That’s why supporting mental health now is more important than ever. Today I’ll share 3 ways you can reduce stress and anxiety through better gut health.
We know there’s a strong link between the gut and the mind. When we smell delicious food, our gut responds with gurgling and the release of enzymes. When we feel stressed, we can trigger “butterflies in the stomach”. But recent research is showing that this is a two-way connection. Stress leads to indigestion and indigestion leads to feeling stressed.
The Gut Brain Connection: How Our Gut “Talks” To Our Brain
- Via the vagus nerve This nerve travels from the brain to the internal organs of the torso: like the heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and gut. It plays a critical role in our “rest and digest” functions. We often think of the brain as the “boss” sending messages to the body but 80% of the information in this nerve actually comes from the internal organs and goes to the brain; and these “status updates” are constantly occurring. Shallow breathing can be a result of stress but because of this two-way communication, it can also (sometimes inaccurately) signal the brain that we are in danger, activating the systems that support acute stress making us feel even more stress. Practices such as belly breathing and hot-cold showers can help to “retrain” the vagus nerve.
- Via the bloodstream through hormones, neurotransmitters and the immune system
Leaky Gut leads to Brain Inflammation
In a healthy gut, the single cell layer of the intestinal cells are held close together to only allow certain particles like nutrients through to the bloodstream. But chronic gut inflammation (from stress, processed foods, dysbiosis (gut flora imbalance) etc.) leads to the weakening of the “glue” between these cells and unwanted particles like partially digested foods “leak” into the bloodstream. One of these unwanted particles, called LPS (a component of bacteria) can activate the amygdala of the brain and lead to more anxiety, difficulty thinking and even more pain. LPS also damages the blood brain barrier leading to brain inflammation, a key factor in mood conditions. Reference 1
Dysbiosis adds to Stress and Anxiety
We know that the lack of good gut bacteria is bad for our digestion but it can also make us feel more stressed and anxious. This is in part because some beneficial bacteria may influence our amygdala so we feel less fear and anxiety. Our gut flora also plays a role in secreting neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA which help us feel happy and calm. It makes sense then that dysbiosis and even the use of some antibiotics, can negatively affect our moods. Reference 2
Reduce Stress With These Gut Health Tips
- First and foremost, create an environment to allow for enjoyable meal times. Make simple, sensible meal choices and don’t fear any foods. Play relaxing music with dinner, do meal planning to simplify weekday meals, do a few deep breaths with the family before eating. Feeling grounded and connected to yourself and others helps to support a robust vagus nerve and gut function.
- Support the good gut bugs: In addition to probiotics/probiotic food, eat organic foods as much as possible (see the Dirty Dozen list for foods to buy organic) and avoid pesticide and antibiotic use when possible. Include foods that help to eliminate the bad gut bugs like garlic, ginger, thyme and coconut oil. Sometimes stronger antimicrobials are needed so talk to your practitioner about your specific gut flora needs.
- Magnesium: Due to stress, modern diets and agricultural practices, magnesium deficiency is common. Since magnesium is critical to heart health, stabilizing blood sugar and making neurotransmitters, replenishing magnesium can help build resilience to stress and reduce anxiety
- Magnesium is found in chard, spinach, ghee, nuts/seeds, sprouts, fish, sea vegetables, avocados, cacao/dark chocolate
- Magnesium glycinate is well absorbed, well tolerated and has a calming effect for many of my patients with stress and anxiety. Always discuss with your practitioner if supplements and medications are suitable for you.
- Magnesium can be applied and absorbed through the skin as well using magnesium oils/sprays or by taking a warm epsom salt bath.
When stress and anxiety are running our lives and gut health is ignored, unfortunately the two- way communication between the gut and brain causes a spiral of more stress, and worse mood. On top of that it can lead to worsening indigestion, insomnia, fatigue and immune function.
As with shallow breathing, we often don’t realize how our digestion is impacting us (until you have symptoms!) so I hope this brings awareness to our gut health and gives you the tools you need to feel less stress. With a healthy gut and healthy brain you’ll feel more grounded, calmer and better able to connect with yourself and friends/family. What will you do for your gut and brain health today?