Trust Your Gut: Understanding the Gut-Brain Connection

rē•assessing our gut health.

By: Julia Childs-Heyl, MSW
Trust Your Gut: Understanding the Gut-Brain Connection

The gut is where the seed of our intuition resides. We know when something isn’t quite right or may even be unsafe when we get that slight churning in our belly. But, conversely, we know something is wonderful and perhaps life-changing when we feel a sense of lightness in our stomach. So our gut never lies, which goes beyond the anecdotal and into the scientific. 

Here lies an invitation to rē•spin our approach to health. Sure, probiotics and fermented foods are essential for healing our gut, but so is a modern approach to deepening our intuitive awareness of our health. So we tapped Nawal Mustafa, Ph.D. Candidate in Neuropsychologist and wellness advisor for nootropic gummy line No. 8, to guide us in understanding the gut-brain axis on a deeper level.

Honoring Our Internal Connections

“Our gut and brain are connected bidirectionally through the gut-brain axis. This network links the enteric nervous system (the gut) to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord),” Nawal explained. When we talk about the gut-brain connection, it isn’t a mere symbolic notion of interconnectedness. Instead, it is a precise communication from our head to our belly.

The idea that our inner world colors our external world becomes quite literal when we interrogate the connection between the gut and the brain. Our gut microbiota, which comprises billions of cells and includes viruses, bacteria, and fungi, is believed to influence the gut-brain relationship directly. As a result, it directly impacts our thinking, emotional regulation, and hormonal balance. One of the greatest threats to our gut microbiota is stress, with a recent study underscoring how stress can affect our microbiota throughout our lifespan.

The Perils of the Inflamed Mind

As a psychotherapist, I’ve maintained a particular interest in how mental health challenges are linked to our internal health. In fact, I’ve mistakenly believed that depression and anxiety can cause gastrointestinal issues, and I’m not the only one. The diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Disorder even include unexplained digestive issues as a symptom. Nawal shared that though, for a long time, many scientists and medical experts believed mental health issues were a cause for gut issues, it actually may be the other way around. “An inflamed gut may be a risk factor in developing anxiety and depression because it places stress on the gut microbiome through releasing cytokines and neurotransmitters,” she explained. Heightened levels of cytokines can be particularly troublesome. They weaken the blood-brain barrier, which allows what Nawal refers to as “rogue molecules” in the gut to pass the barrier. This can negatively influence brain function, resulting in anxiety and depression.

It isn’t uncommon to hear the importance of self-care preached everywhere, from commercials and social media to grocery stores and doctors. Yet, this startling link between our emotional health and physical health underscores the necessity of rē-spinning our wellbeing.

The Difference Between an Imbalanced and Balanced Gut

Your body will share its intelligence with you, but it is up to you if you’d like to listen. Nawal explained ways we can begin to tap into our physical wellness to assess our gut health. Some of the most significant signs of an unhealthy gut include stomach issues. Are you constantly bloated? Do you experience stomach aches or nausea often? If so, you may have a gut imbalance.

If you find that your emotional wellbeing is often challenged, maybe even resulting in mood swings, then it is possible an inflamed gut could be to blame. The most profound healing can occur when we tend to both the mind and body. Seeking out mental health support is important, but so is exploring your physical wellness.

Exhaustion and sleep issues can be a side effect of our hectic lives, but they can also indicate problems. Finally, if you’re constantly consuming processed and high in sugar foods, then your gut is at risk of some imbalance.

It is worth noting that auto-immune conditions can link to gut health issues. Be sure to connect with your doctor to see if your unique symptoms align with that of gut inflammation.

Go Forth and rē•spin Thy Gut Health

Minimizing unhealthy habits and foods is essential for your mind and entire body. Nawal suggests avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, smoking cigarettes, ingesting dairy, consuming red meats, and eating foods with high levels of refined sugar.

Dietary changes aren’t the only access point for healing. For example, the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in our autonomic nervous system that dictates our parasympathetic functioning, can be a portal to soothing an irritated gut. “The vagus nerve plays an important role in modulating the gut-brain axis by carrying an extensive range of signals from the inner organs to the brain and vice versa,” Nawal shared. The vagus nerve also supports the activity of the intestinal functional effector cells, impacting the gut microbiome, which in turn affects the neuroendocrine and metabolic systems. Plus, the vagus nerve can soothe our stress responses. Remember, stress is a huge factor in gut inflammation, so it is important to minimize it by any means possible.

Some of Nawal’s favorite ways to activate the vagus nerve include:

  • Cold showers or ice baths
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Movement
  • Regularly consuming probiotics and nutrient-dense food
  • Vocal cord stimulation, like humming

Nawal has found that No. 8’s Focus gummies can help reduce chronic inflammation, thanks to its active ingredient phosphatidylserine. Studies suggest that getting enough phosphatidylserine in your diet can help reduce markers of chronic inflammation, lowering your risk of negative health effects.

Honoring Your Body’s Knowing

The beauty of knowledge is the power that follows. While it may feel startling to initially consider how your body’s current state is impacting your mind, you are now armed with information that can set you free. All it takes is one habit at a time to rē•spin your health and heal. If you’re feeling lost on where to begin, reach out to your doctor for more support.

Image: @adark.lana

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