Spill your guts. Trust your gut instinct. Make a gut-wrenching decision. We’ve all heard these sayings, but have you ever wondered why we associate so many emotional responses with our digestive systems? The truth is, what happens in our gut affects the brain and vice versa; in fact, our gut health is associated with our anxiety.
Our emotions are complex, but we know that they are solidly rooted in the brain. In this article, I’ll break down how each element works. Then, I’ll discuss a multifaceted approach to improve gut health and relieve anxiety.
How Gut Health And Anxiety Are Connected
The gut-brain axis connects our digestive system (gut) with the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). A third element also links gut health and anxiety: the endocrine system. This is the generation, distribution, and regulation center for all hormones.
Understanding these connections helps us see how poor gut health can cause anxiety.
The hormones and chemicals that pass between these systems are like the instrumental notes in a symphony. Each has its unique origin and purpose. But it’s their harmony that creates the musical masterpiece.
Then there’s the fourth element: the vagus nerve. Think of it as the maestro coordinating this grand orchestra. It’s an essential part of the gut-brain axis, making it a key player in the interactions between gut health and anxiety.
The vagus nerve controls involuntary bodily functions. This includes breathing, digestion, and heart rate—core tenets of anxiety management.
It’s important to note that each section of this orchestra affects the others. So, taking care of ourselves through effective stress management helps our gut health and reduces anxiety.
Hormone Harmony Improves Gut Health and Reduces Anxiety
There are six main hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that travel throughout the gut-brain axis. They regulate blood flow, digestive process, nutrient absorption, the intestinal aspects of the immune system, and the microbiome (natural gut bacteria).
This complex relationship directly affects anxiety and depression.
The endocrine system produces and manages this hormone in times of stress, excitement, or threat. It’s commonly known as the “fight-or-flight” hormone. It’s normal, necessary, and even beneficial. Adrenaline kickstarts our bodies into motion, so we can evade danger without having to think about it.
But long-term, persistent surges of adrenaline can endanger our health. One of the downsides of adrenaline is its contribution to anxiety.
You know how we tend to think of anxiety as a source of tension in our bodies? Well, it creates the opposite in the gut. It relaxes the stomach and intestinal muscles and decreases their blood flow. This process slows down or even stops digestion from happening.
This stress hormone increases the brain’s use of glucose (energy). It cuts off the brain’s nonessential functions so it can focus on immediate action.
This is important in the case of needing to escape danger. It also gives us the energy to wake up in the morning and keep going throughout the day. Other benefits include contributing to immune function and regulating blood pressure.
Yet again, we can experience too much of a good thing. Long-term, excess cortisol production leads to inflammation, which contributes to anxiety and digestive issues.
“Leaky gut” is one such problem. It’s when particles pass through our intestinal wall into the bloodstream. “Leaky gut” is not an official medical diagnosis due to a lack of clear and consistent testing results. In the medical world, it’s called “intestinal permeability.”
Studies show this to be present in several diagnosable disorders. It’s found in two major digestive conditions: celiac disease and Crohn’s disease. It’s also linked to other diagnosable issues including food allergies, anxiety, and depression.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid)
GABA is a natural brain relaxant that makes us feel good. It helps the body unwind after a stress-induced neurotransmitter release (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline).
GABA receptors are also found in gut bacteria. When GABA activity is low, it leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and mood disorders.
This serves double functions. First, it’s a neurotransmitter. It increases alertness and maintains blood pressure during times of stress. It also regulates our sleep-wake cycles, mood, and memory. As a stress hormone, norepinephrine signals multiple organs and processes to stay on alert until we are ‘out of danger.’
Additionally, increased levels of norepinephrine affect our gut health. It increases the virulence of bacteria like E. coli and Campylobacter. This means we’re more susceptible to foodborne illness when exposed to these germs.
The gut produces about 95 percent of the body’s serotonin.This fact alone is enough to make us pay closer attention to the integration of our gut, brain, and mood.
Serotonin is the brain’s “good mood” chemical. Having low levels can cause depression and anxiety. Altered serotonin levels can disrupt sleep patterns as well, further affecting mood.
Serotonin’s role in digestion is one of maintaining balanced gut function. Serotonin levels directly affect the digestive disorder IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). When levels are too low, sufferers experience constipation and/or hard, lumpy stools. Levels that are too high result in watery, loose bowel movements.
This is the “reward” chemical that drives behavior. It affects our mood, emotions, and stress response. Low dopamine levels can lead to depression, and high levels can exacerbate anxiety. Like serotonin, maintaining a healthy balance of this major mood influencer is important.
Dopamine also affects our digestion. The GI (gastrointestinal tract) produces about half of the body’s dopamine. Keeping dopamine levels balanced is vital for gut health, as too little can disrupt the digestive process.
Non-Food-Related Habits to Improve Gut Health and Relieve Anxiety
Now that we have a better understanding of the relationship between poor gut health and anxiety, what can we do about it?
It’s easy to assume that nutrition is our only tool for improving digestion, and thereby, anxiety. But we can take a more holistic approach. We get many added benefits by not limiting ourselves to that single modality.
These are the foundational pieces of meditation. They connect our minds and bodies.
Mantras are simply spoken statements. Examples include “I choose to feel peace” or “With every breath, I feel myself relaxing.” These affirmations refocus the mind and recalibrate the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
Remember, the ANS handles our involuntary processes like breathing and digestion. It slows our breathing and heart rates, which are elevated during moments of anxiety. The results last far beyond the duration of the practice.
When we make mantras a regular habit, it’s easier to recenter ourselves anytime anxiety strikes.
Mudras are also powerful for relief from anxiety, depression, stress, and traumatic events. In his book, Meditation as Medicine: Activate the Power of Your Natural Healing Force, Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa presents science-backed evidence of the physiological and mental-emotional benefits of this practice.
Mudras involve intentional postures, movements, and positioning of the arms, hands, and fingers. This is usually combined with mantras and/or breathwork. These empower us to experience calm healing.
The book includes specific mantra/mudra combinations for gut health and relief from digestive symptoms, as well as depression and anxiety.
What do our vocal cords have to do with digestion? It turns out, quite a lot.
Vocal cord vibration stimulates the vagus nerve. Remember this is the maestro, creating harmonious integration of gut health and mental health. It directly affects both digestion and mood.
Chanting mantras is one simple method for vagal toning. If you’re including mantras with your meditation anyway, there’s no extra effort required. If the idea of this feels too ‘woo-woo’ or awkward, simply sing or hum your favorite songs. The key here is to activate your vocal range in whatever way feels good to you.
I bet you’re aware of the power of our breath to soothe anxiety. But did you know that the way we breathe also affects digestion? The gut-lung axis (GLA) is not as well understood as the gut-brain axis. Yet, its identification alone verifies the connection between our lungs and our gut.
Filling our lungs with oxygen improves blood circulation throughout our bodies. This includes enhanced blood flow within the alimentary canal (the whole passage along which food passes through the body).
Often, we don’t pay attention to this automatic function of life. It’s easy to fall into the common habit of irregular or shallow breathing.
Poor digestion has a powerful association with these patterns of ineffective breathing. There are many proven conscious breathing methods that stimulate the vagus nerve (the “maestro”). Try Breath of Fire, the Wim Hof Method, diaphragmatic breathing, or this interesting take on the box method—the SWAT breathing technique.
In the case of anxiety and gut health, yoga poses are like mudras for our whole bodies.
Flexing and extending into asanas (yogic poses) provides many perks. It activates our energy centers and helps us focus on our breath with intention. Studies even show that yoga improves nutrient absorption. As discussed above, all of these benefits relieve anxiety and digestive issues.
Some yoga poses are specifically beneficial to our digestive organs. For example, taking a gentle Bridge Pose stimulates and stretches the abdominals. Padmasana (cross-legged position) stimulates digestive enzymes.
All yoga poses help soothe the nervous system for effective stress and anxiety relief.
“Rest and Digest”
It’s no coincidence that this term is used to describe the physiological state that’s opposite of anxiety-driving “fight or flight.” The digestive process is hampered by stress because our bodies are designed to focus all our energy on survival. (If you’re fighting off a bear attack, you need every ounce of energy available for this single effort until you’re safe!)
Many of our modern-day stressors aren’t life-or-death. But our physiology doesn’t know the difference and responds to stress signals in kind.
By reducing stress, we can improve our digestion. This matters because we need our bodies to get the greatest benefits from the nutrients in our food.
Likewise, improving gut health gives our bodies the tools to manage stress. We can stop falling into survival mode processes and easily improve both gut health and mental health.
Clearly, there are powerful connections between our emotions, anxiety, and gut health. Healing any one of these aspects of ourselves creates a ripple effect that changes all of them for the better.
When we take a holistic approach that includes mind and body, we can improve gut health and relieve anxiety with ease.
Featured photo credit: Joice Kelly via unsplash.com
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