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The Gut-Brain Axis, Explained

The Cabinet — 10.20.21
by Rebecca Moragne, MS Nutrition and Naturopathic Medical Student

What is the gut-brain axis? 

The gut-brain axis refers to the vagus nerve, a collection of nerves between the gut and the brain. 90% of the nerves between the brain and gut deliver information from the gut to the brain. That means that far more information from your gut is delivered to your brain than your brain telling your gut what to do or how to behave. Gut bacteria break down food particles that release compounds, called short chain fatty acids, and chemicals that are sensed by the vagus nerve. The gut is updating the brain on what is going on down there from the quality of food to how the immune system is responding. This informs how the brain reacts.

How is it affected by stress? 

Since 90% of the nerves are in one direction, that leaves 10% of the nerves to be the ones that deliver information from the brain to the gut. So when there is a stressful situation, the brain might notify the gut to lower its workload to save energy for the stressful situation. Have you ever experienced nervous diarrhea or vomiting? That is your body trying to get rid of food that it does not want to take the energy to digest! Additionally, when the vagus nerve is occupied by stress, it does not release anti-inflammatory molecules to tame inflammation in the body. Gut microbes are especially sensitive to inflammation, such as that produced by stress, and therefore, stress can lead to inflammatory related damage in the gut. 

How does stress & anxiety trigger IBS?

A stressed brain means a stressed gut! When you are feeling stressed or anxious, your body releases chemicals. As noted above, those chemicals can lead to nervous diarrhea but also additional pain. This repetitive action by the nervous system can produce dysbiosis, basically a mess of gut bacteria. Dysbiosis refers to a low level of gut microbial diversity in the gut. And we want a high diversity! This dysbiosis increases the prevalence of harmful bacteria strains and a decrease in the prevalence of beneficial strains in the gut. And this dysbiosis occurs in IBS producing all of the familiar symptoms of bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and constipation. 

What do specific stomach issues say about what’s going on in your brain-gut axis? In other words, are there certain emotions that manifest in certain symptoms? 

Signs of a stressed gut include bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and excess flatulence. One specific symptom does not necessarily connect to one specific emotion, but paying attention to how you are feeling and how your gut is behaving can help give you some answers.  But remember--stress can manifest differently for different bodies. Next time your stomach is feeling a bit off, before immediately blaming the food you’ve eaten, take a second to think about how you are feeling emotionally. You may find the answer there. ? 

What routines and rituals can one integrate into their everyday life to support the brain-gut axis?

Daily gut support does not need to be complicated!

Fiber + Prebiotics: A decent amount of fiber in your diet helps support your gut bacteria by fueling gut bacteria, encouraging strong gut motility, and strengthening the cells that line your intestines. An easy switch to increase fiber in your gut is selecting whole-grain or seeded bread instead of white bread options. Fiber additionally includes prebiotics, food for our healthy gut bacteria. Prebiotics are found in most plants from almonds and apricots to asparagus and chamomile tea. If you include a diversity of plants and color in your diet, your gut bacteria will be happy! 

Exercise: Daily movement is a second recommendation. If someone is experiencing bloating or constipation, movement can help relieve these symptoms because it literally gets the gut moving. This movement can help relieve trapped gas or push a bowel movement along. For bloating in particular, gentle twists, such as a supine spinal twist in yoga, are incredibly helpful. 

Sleep: Lastly, do not forget about sleep! Sleep affects everything. Sleep is when your body, including your gut, rests, recovers, and strengthens in preparation for the next day. Regular bedtimes, morning routines, and time away from your phone before falling asleep can be very therapeutic.

Can you explain the science behind why a healthy gut can help combat anxiety?

Bacteria in your gut produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. 95% of serotonin in the body is produced in the gut. And serotonin is a happiness hormone! If your gut is happy, it can focus on supporting your mental health through the production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood, anxiety, and happiness. 

Secondly, in order for the gut to be healthy, it needs to be able to block harmful bacteria from sticking around. A gut with high diversity includes a variety of bacteria, increasing the odds that the gut will be resilient to an intruder. A high prevalence of beneficial bacteria also increases the amount of metabolites, short-chain fatty acids, that are produced. And these metabolites help communicate what is going on to the brain in addition to strengthening the lining of the intestines. Short-chain fatty acids are the compounds that bacteria produce from prebiotics (another plug to consume lots of plants!). This strengthening of the barrier between our gut and our intestines decreases the odds of any toxins and undigested food particles from entering the intestines, causing inflammation. And this inflammation, if not prevented, would negatively affect the nervous system, triggering symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

To summarize, a healthy gut can help combat anxiety through:

  1. Producing mood regulating chemicals

  2. Increasing the body’s resilience against harmful bacteria

  3. Strengthening intestinal walls, decreasing inflammation, and thus, allowing bacteria to focus on producing mood regulating chemicals

What herbs support the gut-brain axis and how? 

To help support the gut-brain axis, herbs and natural ingredients can play a role in regular maintenance and/or healing previous damage. I do not know one person who does not experience some form of daily stress or anxiety...

Aloe: Aloe is a beautiful green plant that, similar to how you might think of it as soothing for a sunburn, can be soothing internally to your intestines. 

Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL); DGL is another soothing ingredient. It helps the body repair gut lining by replenishing the mucus that creates a healthy intestinal barrier. Deglycyrrhizination is a process that allows for safer consumption of the licorice. 

Flax seeds: Flax seeds are plentiful in omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids reduce inflammation by acting as a fuel to gut bacteria (remember those short chain fatty acids!) and as a natural laxative to relieve any constipation. I enjoy adding them to my morning oatmeal or smoothie.

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