At one time or another, we have experienced that “gut feeling” when something does not feel quite right or equally does feel so right. Our gut’s role in health and well-being has become so much more than just about our digestion of food.
Our guts are home to millions of bacteria and other microbes that help us digest our food, fight off infections and even keep our moods balanced. But modern lifestyles can throw off the natural balance of these microscopic creatures, causing an imbalance known as dysbiosis.
The gut-brain axis is bi-directional, so communicates both ways. When we don't feel well mentally or physically, this can affect what happens in our gut. When our stress levels increase too much too often, it can trigger the fight or flight response which deprioritises digestion. The good news is that we can take steps to maintain healthy levels of stress by taking time out every day for self-care and relaxation activities such as exercise, meditation and yoga.
Signals and the Vagus Nerve
Our gut and brain are in constant communication. It's a two-way street, where our brain sends signals to our stomach and receives signals from it. It's kind of like a game of telephone—your brain tells the gut what to do, and the gut tells your brain what it needs.
The Vagus Nerve is one of our largest cranial nerves, running between your stomach and your neck. It's thought to be the main communication road allowing a bi-directional pathway between the gut microbes and your brain neurotransmitters. The gut has been nicknamed “the second brain” because its functions are so complicated—it even has its nervous system called the enteric nervous system!
How our gut-friendly microbes become affected?
Some of our greatest well-being tools are our everyday tasks and what we find fulfilment within our week, not just from our everyday dietary aspect, but also in our environment.
The greatest overall well-being tools we have and can do, come from our diets and environment, like taking time for ourselves, exercising and being social. Our daily life impacts the gut-brain bi-directional pathway, so making sure we fit in what we enjoy daily or weekly has far-reaching wellness benefits, including our gut health.
Sleep, stress and diet all play a pivotal role in our overall gut health from healthy neurotransmitter production, and release and nervous system health are vital elements and play a part in an effective and happy gut-brain pathway.
Why does stress effect more than just our gut health?
The gut-brain axis pathway is also interconnected to many other body pathways, such as the hypothalamus-pituitary axis called the HPA axis pathway. The HPA axis pathway is responsible for how we react to stress, largely governing our stress response in the body. Factors like environmental stress or acute or chronic emotional stress, lack of sleep and nutritional deficiencies, can all help to trigger this pathway and release stress hormones. Stress-related conditions such as adrenal depletion or exhaustion can result from over-activation of this pathway, leading to burnout and chronic fatigue-like symptoms.
The whole-body effect of the gut-brain pathway
Each person’s gut microbiome is distinct and individual to them much like a fingerprint. Our gut microbes interact not only with our feel-good brain neurotransmitters through the gut-brain pathway but also with our entire nervous system and on our immune cell activity, giving it the potential ability to impact our total well-being, from emotional wellness to immune health.
There is cross-talk with other pathways such as the HPA axis pathway and the gut-liver pathway that affect our stress response and body wellness. Looking after our gut, clearly also helps to look after our whole being for optimal health, wellness and recovery. Alongside acting as daily innate support for mood, stress, healthy skin, digestion and healthy brain function for feeling like your best version of yourself.
Hunger and stomach signals
When we are hungry, our body tells us with releasing Leptin, appetite-inducing hormones. When we are sad or low this also gets put in a message and sent along the gut-brain axis and communicated. This can be linked to how in times of stress, we can often either reach for a treat or some people can lose their appetite. Or some sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) when stressed or upset, can report worsening symptoms or become more sensitive to foods while stressed. There is a link to developing a complex relationship with food as we see with emotional eating, as it is common to crave your favourite foods or have larger servings while upset. Or when feeling sluggish it is all too easy to have your favourite comfort food or turn to excessive caffeine and sugary foods for a boost. This can result in large diet changes due to mood or energy levels which can flow on and impact your health in other ways.
Our emotional state impacts how we digest our food. Eating when you are upset or stressed can cause indigestion as our body is too focused on stress. While you are stressed and in fight or flight mode you cannot prioritise digestion as you are out of rest and digest state. For optimal digestion, we want to activate the rest and digest system (parasympathetic nervous system) which is activated when we are relaxed, the opposite of the flight or fight system (sympathetic nervous system).
If you want to support your wellbeing and focus on the gut-brain axis here are some steps to take.