Do you get “butterflies” before a major event? Or feel like your stomach is “tied in knots” after an argument? Or suffer through a digestive system that’s “out of whack” because of stress?
You’re not alone. The gut-brain connection is real.
I conducted corporate training for over 25 years. I taught multiple MBA courses. And I was a keynote speaker at conferences around the world. Yet, there was never a time when I didn’t get nervous. And my brain told my body to react.
Signals from your brain (e.g., I’m nervous) connect with your gut bacteria, known as the microbiome. According to Harvard Medical School, emotions such as anxiety or even elation can trigger symptoms in the gastrointestinal (GI) track through these brain signals. In fact, some GI disorders are difficult to heal without dealing with the underlying stress and emotion.
Everyone has both good and bad bacteria in their guts. As long as the good guys maintain a healthy balance over the bad guys, you don’t have to worry. Unfortunately, chronic, long-term stress can affect this balance. Physical and emotional stress affects your ability to digest and absorb food.
Researchers have found that the interaction between gut and brain is bidirectional. Not only can psychological stress and emotion tamper with gut bacteria, the reverse is also true. According to the American Psychological Association:
“… the gut microbiome can influence neural development, brain chemistry and a wide range of behavioral phenomena, including emotional behavior, pain perception and how the stress system responds.”
That means gut bacteria alter brain chemistry. Good bacteria can raise stress resiliency. Bad ones can ramp up anxiety.
In addition, interactions may be circular. The APA article states: “Stress-induced changes to the microbiome may in turn affect the brain and behavior.” It can start in the brain, move to the gut, and boomerang back.
A second brain
While the interactions between the gut and the brain have been known for centuries, recent scientific studies show that this “enteric nervous system” (ENS) acts as a second brain. Signals are transmitted between the brain and the gut along the vagus nerve, similar to the spinal cord in our nervous system. Weakening, blocking, or changing the signals can compromise the functioning of the microbiome.
Optimize the connections
You can take several steps to improve your gut-brain functioning.
- Practice daily stress-reduction routines. I’ve discussed many techniques in prior posts. Exercise, meditation, yoga, and nature walks are good places to start. Deep-breathing can be used for “in-the-moment” stress reduction.
- Reduce avoidable stressors. Sometimes our own self-imposed deadlines and perfectionism cause us stress. Think about ways to minimize (or even eliminate) them from your life.
- Add probiotic and prebiotic foods to your diet. Probiotics contain live bacteria to supplement those in the GI track. Yogurt (with live and active cultures), unpasteurized sauerkraut, and kefir are examples. Prebiotics act like “fertilizer” for the gut microflora, improving the balance between good and bad bacteria. Asparagus, bananas and oatmeal fall into this category.
- Avoid unnecessary antibiotic use. Excessive use may lead to antibiotic resistance and may damage the liver. Antibiotics can alter the gut microbiome, killing both good and bad bacteria. If antibiotics are critical, some doctors recommend taking probiotics to restore the microbiome.
Your brain and your gut are connected. Make sure they work together in harmony.