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The Mind-Gut Connection

The Mind-Gut Connection – How does stress affect the gut?

Stress can affect the gut in a significant way. You probably know this already, as you had experienced nausea before a nerve-wracking event or needed a quick visit to the bathroom during an anxiety attack. However, most people are surprised by the extent of the connection between the mind and our gut. While it is evident that we have one body and one system, there is something synchronistic between our brain and stomach areas. Here we look to explain a little more what this connection means for our lifestyle.

What is the mind-gut connection?

Our gastrointestinal (GI) system is susceptible to our emotions. When we feel distressed or grief, it is not unusual to lose our appetite. Equally, when we are about to go on stage, we might say that we have “butterflies in our stomach”. We may think and create the emotion in our mind, but we are most likely to feel it in our gut. Think how many times you have thought about a cream cake, and your stomach has immediately got the rumbles going.

Consequently, it is not surprising that overthinking caused by anxiety and depression can result in symptoms in our GI tract.
How does stress impact our gut?

One of the most distressing impacts of stress is the resultant impact on your gut. Pain, discomfort, and incontinences are all genuine responses to issues in our mind and our emotions. Unfortunately, this leads people to say that these symptoms are all in the person’s head when the contrary is true. The physical consequences of our thoughts and feelings on our gut are physiological; in short, they are real symptoms that can exacerbate the stress and so create an impossible cycle to break.
Your body is acting naturally when it reacts to stress. Your sympathetic nervous system senses danger when you are stressed and prompts the fight, flight or freeze function, which surges your system with cortisol. If you ever need to climb a tree quickly to evade a bear, cortisol is a valuable chemical, giving you superspeed and strength.

However, when you have nothing to fight, you experience higher blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and your muscles tense – including those in the intestine, bowel, and rectum – causing some unpleasant side effects. As a one-off, you might vomit or experience gas or diarrhoea.

Extreme stress or prolonged exposure to high-level stress can have more severe effects. The blood flow is limited to the GI tract, and you may experience cramping and inflammation. From this, you can develop conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Peptic Ulcer, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).

What can you do about this?

Obviously, the link between your mind and gut can be managed with lifestyle changes. You can work to reduce the stress in your life and use meditation to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the threat response.

However, the adage that you are what you eat is apt. While there are all sorts of complicated ways of viewing human beings, we are an animal that functions as a basic input and output model. Therefore, what you eat matters.

You should try to eat plenty of probiotic and prebiotic foods. Probiotic foods add helpful bacteria to the gut and include yoghurts, some raw cheeses and other more exotic foods such as kefir and kimchi. Prebiotic bacteria are already in your gut, and you should eat foods like legumes, whole grains, and vegetables to fertilise bacteria.

A healthy gut efficiently processes your food, which is what healthy bacteria do for you. You should make a special effort to add bacteria to the gut when taking anti-biotics, which doesn’t discriminate between helpful and unhelpful bacteria. Plant-based foods are better for your gut, as they introduce a range of microbes to your system. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is also the best fat for doing the same and should be your fat of choice when cooking.

It is a good idea to increase your fibre intake too and stay away from processed foods. Any food that works with your gut and doesn’t force it to work hard will help you maintain a healthy GI system.

What about other lifestyle choices?

Drinking too much alcohol and getting insufficient sleep will feed into a negative cycle between your mind and your gut. Therefore, resting and recharging with as much natural sleep as possible will make a big difference. You might want to take up yoga, adding beneficial stretches that directly improve your intestinal processes too.

The takeaway

Accepting that stress can have a biological impact on your body is essential. It gives you permission to take the symptoms you feel in your gut seriously and do something about them. It also helps you see that your stomach problems’ root cause might be emotionally based, and you need to take a more holistic approach to your healing.

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