The Gut-Brain Connection

The Gut-Brain Connection

This is a piece that I’ve been meaning to write for a while. 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.


IBS – Collab with Thrive Festival

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a functional gut disorder that effects the large intestine, also known as the colon. It is classified as a syndrome as it is collection of symptoms, meaning it can manifest differently from one person to the next. Symptoms can include flatulence, bloating, distention, diarrhoea, constipation and stomach cramps. How it effects an individual can depend on which subtype they have been diagnosed with; IBS-C ie. constipation dominant, IBS-D ie. diarrhoea dominant, or the mixed subtype. Alteration in bowel patterns can vary for an individual, regardless of their diagnosis.

The cause is currently unknown, but a theory is that those with IBS have a hyper-sensitive gut. Factors affecting IBS trigger symptoms by influencing gut motility ie. speeding it up or slowing it down. These factors include stress, sleep, exercise, fibre/FODMAPs, caffeine alcohol and composition of microbes in the gut. There is no cure for IBS at present, so the aim for treatment is symptom management to improve quality of life. However, new emerging research on the connection between the gut and the brain – known as the gut-brain axis – has expanded treatment options available for individuals with IBS.

Inclusion vs exclusion – When we experience symptoms like bloating or a distended tummy, we tend to jump the gun by blaming a particular food and removing it to prevent reoccurrence. While this can be useful for the like of FODMAPs, the role of food intolerances in IBS is somewhat over-stated. Myths continue to circulate online such as cutting out dairy or gluten, have played a role in demonizing certain foods or entire food groups. This restrictive mindset can do more harm than good, as an individual can develop a fear of foods as a result. This can trigger an emotional response in the body, which in turn, can further exacerbate symptoms.

Before you start restricting foods, take a look at what’s missing from your diet. Do you have a ‘balanced’ diet? Are you getting adequate amounts of fibre? Protein? Fats? Fruit & vegetables? Carbohydrates are an example of an entire food group that is often removed from the diet when cutting calories. By doing so, individuals are at risk of nutrient deficiencies, reducing the diversity of their gut microbiota and not consuming sufficient soluble fibre. The language used is also important, ensuring that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ views of food. Of course, there are foods that are less nutritious than others, but context is important. The value of food should not only be measured by the calorie content, but also by how it makes you feel. Is that bar of chocolate really all that bad if you enrich yourself in the experience, while savouring the flavour?

FODMAPs – The Low FODMAP (Fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides and polyols) diet has become somewhat ‘on trend’ lately not only for those with IBS, but for individuals with general bloating. FODMAPs trigger symptoms as consumption can increase fluid in the gut, along with gas as they’re fermented by gut bacteria. The aim of the diet is to, under supervision, identify particular foods that can trigger symptoms, specific to that individual. The first phase involves restricting all FODMAPs, followed by the re-introductory phase. Unfortunately, it is common to see Instagram accounts sharing recipes of ‘FODMAP-free diets’, when this is not the purpose of the diet. While it may seem logical to remove all FODMAPs from the diet, this is not advisable due to their prebiotic nature and the potential risk for nutrient deficiencies. This approach has proven successful for symptom relief, but should be done under the guidance of a trained nutrition professional.

Supporting digestion – Manipulating fibre is important for those with IBS as increasing soluble fibre can help prevent constipation, while decreasing insoluble fibre can help prevent diarrhoea. How you eat is also important to ensure blood flow is directed towards the gut, and not away from it. Slow down your chewing and remember not to eat while stressed, emotional or on the go. There’s no need to down tablespoons of Apple Cider Vinegar, simply swap those ice-cold drinks with your meal for warmer ones. Herbs like ginger can support digestion, while mint can be beneficial for symptom relief. Ensure to avoid or reduce the consumption of stimulants such as caffeine, ‘detox teas’ and alcohol that can trigger stomach cramps. Ensure to also drink adequate water to prevent dehydration of the digestive tract.

Self-care – Stress management techniques, rest & unwinding are key to preventing flares in IBS. The latest research studies have shown Mindfulness-based stress reduction interventions such as yoga and meditation, to be as effective as traditional interventions. Taking time out to unwind from our busy lifestyles is so under-rated, yet so impactful. Deep breathing methods activate the parasympathetic nervous, which can both alleviate and prevent symptoms. Making time for adequate rest is important for IBS, as poor-quality sleep can have a negative impact. Learn from my mistakes and avoid getting caught up in the ‘team no days off’ mentality.

Minding your mind – Having IBS can affect an individual’s mental health as they struggle with things like body dysmorphia and shame around their condition. Prioritizing mental health by developing helpful coping strategies and seeking professional help when required, will enhance an individual’s quality of life. Developing skills like emotional resilience and learning about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can improve their ability to cope, therefore reducing the prevalence of flares.  

Having IBS can be difficult to live with due to the multi-factorial nature of the condition. It used to hold me back as I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my body. By changing my mindset, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for my body. My sensitive gut tells me when I’m taking on too much, being too hard on myself or trying to burn the candle at both ends. A flare is a warning sign that I’m not looking after myself and that I need to slow down. I’ve tried multiple different diets, teas, lotions and potions, all with the aim to ‘fix’ myself. What I’ve discovered is that I was never actually broken, I just needed to understand my body that little bit more than the average person. I’ve learned to accept and love myself, even when I look 9 months pregnant or suffer with painful cramps. Self-love isn’t a quick or easy journey to embark on, but we are all worth the time and effort required. Show yourself some compassion, prioritize your health and tune in to your body.