The Gut-Brain Connection
This is a piece that I’ve been meaning to write for a while. I thought it would be best if I wrote about my experience with mental health first, to add a little bit of context. Again, it’s a bit personal at times, but I have finally gotten to a place where I can openly discuss these topics, in the hope to raise awareness and help other people in similar situations. In 2017, I started making the connection with how I felt emotionally and how I was feeling physically. My IBS was severely debilitating, as I was suffering with chronic bloating, severe stomach distention, constipation and spasms in the gut that caused severe pain. My anxiety levels were through the roof, as these symptoms interfered with day to day life. I couldn’t wear the normal clothes I wanted to, I couldn’t train properly and I suffered with an IBS attack almost every day. Essentially, I felt like shit.
I started to really pay attention to what ‘triggered’ the attacks, initially focussing heavily on my diet. I soon began to realise that when I was stressed or anxious, my symptoms would manifest in the gut. My days were generally jam packed, rushing to work, college, the gym and back home again. I was constantly living by the clock, rushing around and worrying about missing buses, being late, meeting deadlines and so on. As a result of this, the stomach distention would begin, coupled with painful muscle spasms. I had spent a year or two researching IBS and how to change my diet to help with my condition prior to this. It suddenly began to click, that although I had made little progress with my diet, there was most definitely an emotional element to my condition. My research began, and I discovered the Gut-Brain Axis. This discovery changed everything for me and also changed how I view overall health today.
The gut is known as the enteric nervous system, in which it has a sympathetic nervous system and a parasympathetic nervous system. This is why it is often referred to as ‘the second brain’. The brain and the gut are connected through the Vagus nerve as they communicate through this channel. This is why it is common for someone to have a dysfunctional gut and suffer with their mental health simultaneously. As moods and emotions play a vital role in the digestion process, the influx of associated hormones like cortisol, can divert the blood flow away from the gut in times of stress. How a person is feeling can also affect the natural rhythm of peristalsis (wave-like muscle movement) of the stomach muscles. In order to survive and flee from any perceived ‘danger’, the instinctive thing to do is to drop all unnecessary weight ie. waste – this is why a person may develop the sudden ‘urgency’ to go to the toilet when they are nervous or excited.
95% of serotonin produced by the body is contained in specialised cells in the stomach. The food we eat directly influences these cells and the bacteria in our gut. Bacteria are also involved in the communication through the vagus nerve. There is new research emerging, showing the benefit food can have on our mental health. A study was conducted in which one group of patients were treated with traditional counselling, and the other with a healthy diet tailored towards increasing fibre and prebiotic foods that promote the growth of ‘good’ gut bacteria. By feeding the bacteria that are beneficial for your health, it was found the results for that group were the same as the group treated with therapy. Another study was carried for IBS patients, treating one group with traditional dietary interventions and the other with mindfulness and stress-reduction therapies. Again, both were found to have similar, successful results. These studies illustrate the power that food has on our mental health and the power our mental health has on our digestion.
I hope this piece gave you further insight into how everything is connected. It’s probably the most important discovery that I made with IBS and what’s extremely upsetting is that this element of the condition was never discussed with me by any doctors that I’ve dealt with. It’s also really important to get the message out there that the food and bacteria living in our gut have a powerful influence on our mental health. This is the first post on IBS and while it is focussed on that, it include more information on mental health, diet and lifestyle, as everything is related.