Understanding the link between the mind and gut is essential to maintaining our health and wellbeing. More and more scientific studies are demonstrating a relationship and if we are honest, we probably don’t need science to confirm this. How often have you felt anxiety in your stomach? How many times has your fear resulted in nausea or diarrhoea?
Although we might accept this connection, it is still essential to understand how mental stress can impact on our digestive system. If we are prepared and fully aware of the potential link, we can self-care and ease many digestive problems. You can also improve your energy levels and generally look better.
What is this mind-gut connection?
Our gastrointestinal system is susceptible to our emotions. Equally, if we think about food, our gut receives signals to release acids – which will make us hungry. However, when you are troubled, your brain will send the wrong messages at the wrong time. All this back and forth messaging is the mind-gut connection, which means our depression, stress and nervousness can have a detrimental impact on our intestines.
What are the negative symptoms associated with the connection?
When the connection between the mind-gut is healthy, we function without noticing the benefits. However, when there are physical and mental disorders, you could see some of these symptoms:
- Difficulty in sleeping or failure to stay asleep
- Prolonged and recurrent painful headaches
- A loss or a gain of weight
- Loss of concentration
- Feeling hungry all the time or not feeling hungry at all
- Withdrawal from social situations
- Crying more or a constant desire to cry
- A sense of continuous nervousness
- Troubled memories.
The impact of stress on the gut
Your gut health is intertwined with your mental health. This fact makes it easy to understand why you more-often-than-not feel your extreme emotions in your gut. What you might call butterflies in the stomach is a manifest of this interconnection.
This is not to say that the expression of mental ill-health in the gut means the symptoms are all in the mind. It is to say that the problems you feel in your stomach and intestines are a consequence of the distress and these consequences are physical. Mental anguish can result in physiological issues such as inflammation and more.
Intense stomach distress can also cause mental ill-health, which then worsens the symptoms in the gut. This is the complexity connected with this connection between the mind and the gut.
The physical effects of cortisol
Cortisol is a significant reason for the problems caused to the stomach caused by our mental state. When we are stressed or afraid, we produce cortisol. It is a hormone that temporarily increases are awareness, our strength, and our speed – it is meant to help get us out of danger. It is the reason we feel like we want to run away or freeze in place or fight someone.
The physical effects of this hormone include increased heart rate, a heightened rate of breathing, increased blood pressure, higher cholesterol, and muscle tension. All this might help if you need to run from a bear, but it also wreaks havoc on your digestive system. It can cause spasms, increased stomach acid, nausea, diarrhoea and leakage, constipation, cramping and pain, lower back pain and excess gas. If the stress or fear is extreme and prolonged, this release of cortisol could restrict oxygen and blood flow and cause severe pain and inflammation.
There are many known conditions from this connection. You could struggle with:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) – a group of symptoms that include abdominal pain and changes in the pattern of your bowel movements. The pain can be severe.
- Peptic ulcers – these are sores that can develop in the lining of the stomach, the lower oesophagus and the small intestine. This can be cause by bacteria and by an increase in stomach acids resulting from stress.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IDB) – this is a collective term for ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease and are consequence of inflammation in the gut.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – you might know this as acid reflux. However, this condition is more severe than this makes it sound, as the reflux can rise up to the throat and beyond and impact breathing.
Some of these conditions are a direct result of our lifestyle and our increased level stress hormones. However, the connection goes the other way. Poor nutritional uptake and the impact on energy levels can also result in an increased chance of mental ill-health.
What does this mean for our lifestyle?
First, if you have struggled with any of these conditions, you probably need to look to reduce your stress levels. Your work-life balance, any problems with money or relationships and more can have significant impacts on your gut. Consequently, your lifestyle should adapt to help you cope with the symptoms you are struggling with. It could mean that you need a different job or, more simply, you may want to make sure the balance between your relaxation time and your work is better calibrated.
You can manage the stress of a difficult job using techniques to reduce the impact on the body. For instance, yoga has been shown to have a significant impact on the gut. Equally, taking up meditation and other mindfulness techniques can help to counter excess cortisol in the body.
Alternatively, you can manage conditions through your diet. Eating plenty of probiotic and prebiotic foods, for instance. The helpful bacteria help keep your gut environment healthier. You can get prebiotics from certain vegetables, grains, and legumes. Probiotics are found in yoghurt and fermented food.
Therefore, to manage your gut-mind link, you should eat a broad range of plant-based foods. You should up your fibre intake and use extra virgin olive oil as your choice of fat. Ultimately, as an easy rule of thumb, steer clear of highly processed foods and reduce the stress in your life.