If you’re even mildly interested in health — and not living under a rock — then there’s a good chance you’ve already heard the phrase gut-brain connection.
It’s become a bit of a buzzword in the wellness spheres and beyond, wielded to justify everything from straight apple cider vinegar shots to intermittent fasting. Especially this time of year, when the food and family time that hallmark the holidays have us hyper-focused on our guts and mental health.
But does this connection between the gut and brain actually impact our everyday lives? They say go with your gut, yet sifting through the science and sidestepping the misinformation is enough to make anyone’s stomach churn.
So we took our humble inquiry to Dr. Neal, our resident wellness wizard and holistic, or whole-body, health expert. Read on for the straightforward scoop about how the two-way street between your brain and gut influences your life.
And our holiday gift to you! Three wellness practices and three supplements to boost the health of your gut-brain axis.
In This Article:
- What is the gut-brain connection
- Why a holistic approach to the gut-brain axis is crucial
- 3 simple practices for gut and brain health
- 3 supplements for gut and brain health
What is the Gut-Brain Connection?
The gut-brain connection: It’s why you get butterflies in your stomach before asking for more ketchup and why the mental anguish of heartbreak can feel like a sucker punch.
Is it really that simple? Yes and no.
Yes, because the brain communicates with the whole body via the nervous system, and the footpath between the brain and your GI tract is especially well-traveled. Connected directly by the vagus nerve, your brain and gut send more messages to each other than two preteens with unlimited texting.
In fact, more nerve cells and neurons, or brain cells, live in your stomach than anywhere else in the body — there are about 100 million neurons in your brain and over 500 million in your gut. Plus, a huge chunk of the neurotransmitters we consider to be the turnkeys of mental health, like serotonin and GABA, are produced in the gut.
Hence the new nickname for the stomach: the second brain.
And no, it’s not that simple, because us Westerners have been taught to view the body as a series of isolated mechanisms working independently on their individual jobs.
The belief in the mind-body dichotomy is waning as research continues to disprove the theory, thankfully. But it’s still difficult to remember that your gut (and what you put in it) influences your mind and experience of life — and vice versa.
That’s why integrating a simple, holistic understanding of the gut and brain connection is crucial for genuine, long-term health.
A Holistic Approach to the Gut-Brain Connection
In this context, a holistic approach simply means that we use a scientific framework to view all the parts of our bodies and lives as interconnected.
Because, of course, the gut-brain axis is emblematic of the whole: Nothing in the body happens inside a vacuum.
In your daily life, this interconnectedness can be seen in how a bad night’s sleep can affect your mental clarity or how a good workout can turn your whole life around. In the two-way street of the gut-brain axis, it shows up in a number of ways that impact your experience of life. Here are just 10 simple, science-based examples:
- Thinking of food or eating can trigger the release of digestive juices in the stomach
- Gut irritation can send distress signals to the brain via the vagus nerve resulting in mood changes
- Patients with depression have an altered gut microbiome
- Consistent meditation practice can positively influence gut health
- People with IBS or Crohn’s have reduced vagal tone and vagal nerve function
- Gut issues early in life can result in long-term stress regulation difficulties
- Mindfulness practices can improve both cognitive impairment and gut health
- Eating probiotic foods can help to alleviate symptoms of depression and boost mood
- Disruptions in circadian rhythm — or sleep schedule/quality — increase leaky gut
- Alterations in the gut microbiome can influence stress-related behaviors
So you really do get nauseous before a big presentation, and no, it’s not all in your head.
3 Wellness Tips to Improve the Health of Your Gut-Brain Axis
The best thing — or 5 things — you can focus on to improve the health of your gut and brain axis live at the bottom of Dr. Neal’s Wellness Pyramid. They’re the unsexy, yet completely non-negotiable, parts of life that create a strong foundation for health: diet, sleep, exercise, stress management, and lifestyle changes.
All 5 of these focal points influence and impact both your gut and brain health — because everything works together, remember?
But before you overcommit to revamping your whole life, try these three simple practices to target your gut and brain health. The positive effects of consistent self-care will reverberate out through the other areas of your wellness and you might even find yourself more motivated to make other, bigger changes.
1. Up Your Nutrient Intake
Is it any surprise that a varied, nutrient-dense diet is pivotal to gut and brain health?
You don’t have to go full paleo though — start by swapping pre-packaged foods for fresh, local eats when and where you can. Enjoy meals and snacks balanced with all three macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) to give your body the fuel it needs to hit movement goals, get great sleep, and regulate your mood.
2. Vagal Nerve and Mindfulness Exercises
You’re not being chased through the wilderness by a rabid tiger, so why is your nervous system acting like you are?
Target your mental health directly — or reverse engineer optimal gut health — by doing mindfulness exercises that pull your body out of fight or flight regularly. Because no one can effectively digest their food or live their best life in a state of constant stress.
You can focus specifically on the vagal nerve and nervous system with practices like humming, singing, and breathing, or opt for the good, old-fashioned, sitting-on-a-mat meditation.
3. Eating with Awareness
Tie these two wellness practices together with the best of both worlds, mindful eating!
Eating with awareness might sound like a highfalutin idea, but in practice, it’s pretty simple: Turn your screens off, sit your butt in a chair, and chew each forkful to an applesauce consistency. No more scarfing down beige bites on the way to work — we said it was simple, not easy.
Try attaching a mindfulness practice to your eating routine. Doing so will not only calm your nervous system and promote proper digestion but also structure your awareness exercises to make long-term change less complicated.
3 Supplements to Target the Gut-Brain Connection
Supplements, if done right, can fill nutrient gaps and help us reach wellness goals when we’re less than perfect with our eating and self-care habits.
But the if done right part is critical.
Doing supplements right means taking the right forms and doses of the right nutrients from the right brands. So while we recommend the three supplements below to strengthen gut and brain health, make sure you do your research!
Only buy from ethical suppliers with transparent practices and, of course, consult your go-to medical practitioner or supplement expert before diving in.
1. Probiotics, Obviously
By flooding the canals and caverns of your digestive tract with beneficial bacteria, high-quality probiotic supplements can improve digestion and symptoms of inflammatory diseases like chronic diarrhea, IBS, and more. And, because the gut and brain are connected as we now know, they can in turn have a positive effect on mood and mental health.
2. Alaskan Omega-3
Another Vital5, omega-3 fatty acids have gained much-deserved popularity in recent years thanks to their heart and brain health benefits.
But did you know this humble nutrient can also modulate the gut microbiome? Omega-3 can help maintain intestinal walls, lower inflammation, and soothe chronic diseases in the gut according to recent research.
It’s no wonder, then, that omega-3 is also being explored as a holistic option for alleviating symptoms of mental health issues. Just make sure you’re getting an omega-3 supplement that is ethically sourced and manufactured to prevent rancidity.
Learn More: Omega-3 Supplements: Are They Worth the Hype?
3. Vitamin D
With so many brain-boosting and gut-healing supplements to choose from, Vitamin D might seem like an odd pick for #3 on this list.
However, the importance of Vitamin D for gut and brain health becomes immediately clear once you know that it plays a major role in preventing and treating leaky gut. By maintaining GI barrier integrity, Vitamin D can help combat chronic inflammation — a common cause of mental health issues and IBS — and the subsequent immune responses that wreak havoc on our health.
You’ve Got Guts, Kid
The next time you’re confronted with all the hype and hoopla about the gut-brain connection, just remember that this axis of health is more than a catchy phrase. It’s a fundamental component of our physical and emotional wellness.
So whatever small, positive steps you’re able to take, be it savoring a nutrient-dense meal, supplementing with probiotics, or slipping in a quick meditation session, will have a big impact overall.
And if you want more personalized, direct guidance on wellness practices and supplements for your gut and brain connection specifically, give us a ring! Our Counterside Consults are always open, always free, and we promise not to get on any of your nerves. Except your vagus nerve.