You’ve probably used the phrases “I have butterflies in my stomach,” “I have a gut feeling about this” or “there’s a pit in my stomach.” Have you ever wondered why so many of these sayings involve our brains and tummies?
As it turns out, it’s not such a coincidence. In fact, the more we learn about the human gut, or our gut microbiome, the more it’s clear that it really is our “second brain.” You’re probably already aware that leaky gut syndrome is linked to serious conditions and diseases. But science is discovering that the connection between our guts and our emotions is just as strong.
What Does the Gut Have to Do with How We Feel?
See, the gut is home to the enteric nervous system. (1) Separate from the central nervous system, the ENS is made up of two thin layers with more than 100 million nerve cells in them — more than the spinal cord. These cells line the gastrointestinal tract, controlling blood flow and secretions to help the GI tract digest food. They also help us “feel” what’s happening inside the gut, since this second brain is behind the mechanics of food digestion.
While the second brain doesn’t get involved in thought processes like political debates or theological reflection, it does control behavior on its own. (2a) Researchers believe this came about to make digestion more efficient in the body; instead of having to “direct” digestion through the spinal cord and into the brain and back, we developed an on-site brain that could handle things closer to the source.
But because this second brain is so complex, scientists aren’t convinced that it was designed as just a way to aid in digestion. So while it isn’t capable of thoughts, it does “talk” to the brain in major ways.
What Role Does Our Gut Play in Mood?
Stress, for example, is intimately tied to our guts. (2b) Our bodies respond to stress with a “fight or flight system,” related to our cortisol levels and which is ruled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. (3) When something scary or worrying happens, like someone unexpectedly jumps in front of you or you see a mouse scurrying in front you, you have a physical reaction: your palms might get sweaty and you might feel your heartbeat quicken.
Typically, if you’re in a stressful situation that is then diffused, your body goes back to normal. But if you’re constantly stressed, your body is stuck in that fight or flight phase over an extended period of time. The critical part is that our bodies are unable to distinguish between physical and mental stress. So your body would respond the same way if a bear showed up in your home as it does when you realize you hate your job — it will try to combat the stress.
This constant state of stress causes chronic inflammation; the body reacts to the stress as a type of infection and tries to overcome it. Because inflammation is at the root of many diseases, this exposure to prolonged stress can have serious consequences for your health, ranging from high blood pressure to autoimmune disorders. The types of bacteria found in the gut — “good bacteria” — play a role in how our immune responses are regulated.
Additionally, the gut microbiome is believed to be linked to disorders like depression and autism. For years, scientists and doctors have noticed that people with autism often have GI issues like food allergies or gluten intolerance. That led researchers to believe that perhaps there was something different about the gut makeup of autistic people.
A 2013 study found that when a certain type of bacteria was given to mice that had similar behavioral characteristics as humans with autism, the gut microbiome of these mice changed, along with their behavior. They became less anxious and were more social with other mice. (4)
Doctors are even changing the way they dispense medicine as a result of the connection between our gut brains and our mood. Some doctors may prescribe particular antidepressants to treat diseases like irritable bowel syndrome. (5)
That doesn’t mean they believe that the digestive problems are all in someone’s head. Rather, it’s thought that these medications can improve the link between the gut and the brain, providing digestive relief in the process.
Natural Remedies for Your Gut-Brain Connection
While there’s still much to uncover about the mystery of the gut and all it affects, we are sure of a few things you should do to improve your gut-brain connection.
1. Avoid Processed Foods
For starters, a whole foods-based diet leads to a gut with a much different makeup than one that’s been fed mainly refined and processed foods. Even worse, ultra-processed foods like white bread, chips and snack cakes that make up nearly 60 percent of the average American’s diet. The added sugar found in these foods, often disguised as different types of artificial sweeteners, are responsible for a variety of health conditions, from obesity to type 2 diabetes to migraines.
2. Eat Probiotics
Eating probiotic-rich foods, like kefir and sauerkraut, can also cause your gut and mood to thrive. Probiotics are good bacteria that primarily line your gut and are responsible for nutrient absorption and supporting your immune system.
3. Swear Off Gluten
For many people, limiting gluten will also have positive effect on their gut microbiome. The traditional methods of soaking, sprouting and souring grains in order to make them digestible and nutritious has been abandoned for a fast and convenient method of mass producing food.
4. Eat Healthy Fats
Healthy fats are essential for brain development. Olive oil, for instance, includes a high amount of antioxidants that protect your cells from damage. It also helps improve memory and cognitive function, and works as an anti-inflammatory. Avocado benefits range from protecting your heart to helping with digestion, but it’s also a great pick for improving your mood.
5. Consume Mushrooms
The shiitake mushroom contains plenty of vitamin B6. Because vitamin B6 impacts the production of serotonin and neurotransmitters, healthy B6 levels are associated with a positive mood and reducing stress naturally. (6) It’s also been proven to effectively treat mood disorders like depression. (7)
6. Eat Nuts
Have a small handful of nuts like almonds, cashews, walnuts and Brazil nuts. Why? They’re full of serotonin, a feel-good chemical that’s in short supply when you’re depressed. (8)
7. Have Sesame Seeds
Its benefits stem from tyrosine, an amino acid that boosts the brain’s dopamine levels. It kicks the feel-good hormone into high gear while balancing out the others.
We don’t have all the answers on the gut-mood link just yet, but one thing is certain: our bodies and minds are much more connected than you believe. Taking care of one part will reap benefits for the rest of you.