Have you ever wondered why you ‘feel nauseous’ before a big presentation? Why certain stressful situations cause you to urgently seek out a loo? Why anxiety wreaks havoc with your stomach? There’s an interesting reason behind it - the gut-brain axis, the two-way line of communication that exists between the brain and belly which in times of stress, can trigger your gut to mirror your current state of mind.
The gut and mind are closely connected. In fact, the gut is dubbed the body’s ‘second brain’ as its delicate balance of microbiome (its trillions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria) influences everything from digestion to mood and immunity. When anxious though, this negatively impacts the balance and therefore impedes its ability to carry out these roles smoothly. “With this shift, it means that we may be producing less of the neurotransmitters such as serotonin that can have a significant impact on how anxious we feel,” explains nutritional therapist, Eve Kalinik . The gut’s a ‘feel good hormone’ powerhouse - it’s believed that almost 90 to 95 per cent of serotonin is produced and managed in there, so if stilted, you’re more likely to get stressed, and therefore fuel the gut-brain anxiety feedback loop. If you suffer from IBS , and anxiety and stress are your triggers, this cycle is one that you’ll know only too well of.
Anxiousness also manifests itself in the stomach due to fluctuations in hormone levels that happen as a result of the body’s stress response. “When we’re anxious, we typically move into a ‘fight or flight’ mode and that can affect the gut too, causing it to either ‘hold' or ‘release,’” explains Eve. “This is due to the effect that the nervous system has on peristalsis, the movement of food through the gut, which happens in response to stress hormones such as adrenaline that are produced when we’re anxious.” This is why stress-related gut problems can range from constipation in some to loose motions in others.
The vagus nerve also plays a pivotal role in the gut-mind connection. One of the largest nerves in the body, it runs from the brain to the gut and and is particularly important as it puts a stop to the body’s stress response, helping it switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. your ‘rest and digest’ mode). The more stress the vagus is exposed to though (our fast-paced modern lifestyles ensure we’re pretty much in a constant state of it), the more overworked and weaker it becomes, the more stressed we get and the more likely that stress-related stomach problems will occur.
The vagus also controls gut motility, the speed at which food moves through the gastrointestinal tract. If not working at full force though, it can further add to your digestive distress. As Eve explains: “If the workings of this nerve are compromised in any way, then things may not move as efficiently through the gut and this can lead to ‘back up’ and an overall more sluggish system.” The good news though is that it can be ‘toned’ to help relieve your symptoms. “Deep breathing puts the body naturally into a ‘rest and digest’ mode that has a positive effect on it and in turn creates a smoother running of the gut.’”
What can you do to stress-proof your gut?
Due to the bi-directional relationship between brain and digestive system, looking after your mental health will also benefit your gut health, and looking after your gut health will help boost your mental health. Here’s what you can do in both the short and long-term.
1. Rest and digest
“One of the simplest things you can do first is to use meal times as pockets of recovery throughout the day by eating without distraction and devices and engaging with your food to maximise the whole process of ‘rest and digest,’” recommends Eve. This will give your body a much-needed break from its default setting of ‘fight or flight,’ giving your vagus nerve a little downtime and subsequently helping reduce the likelihood of stress-related stomach problems. It needn’t be for long. “Even just moving away from your desk at lunchtime for 10 minutes, if that’s all you have, is enough so you can chew sufficiently and eat more mindfully.” Aim for 20 to 30 chews per bite.
2. 3, 4, 5 breathing
As mentioned earlier, deep breathing can help keep your vagus nerve strong and healthy and is a technique that GP and author of the 4 Pillar Plan , £16.99, Dr Rangan Chatterjee, recommends as part of his treatment plan for patients who suffer from IBS and other gut problems. “What I talk about with many of my patients now is 3, 4, 5 breath,” he tells us. “Here, you are breathing out for longer than you are breathing in. It activates the relaxation part of your nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, and this helps to stimulate your vagus nerve.”
3. Reduce your intake of processed foods
As Professor Tim Spector, director of the British Gut Project, points out in the Healthy Gut Handbook , £14.99, humans been negatively affecting our natural microbiome over the last fifty plus years in a multitude of ways, such as an increased dependence on antibiotics, over-cleanliness and probably most notably, through eating increasingly processed and limited diets. So to help restore balance to our microbiome, it’s well worth reducing your intake of processed foods that contain high levels of salt, fat and sugar. As Tim explains:
“Not only do processed foods lack fibre, but they also contain chemicals which have a detrimental effect on our microbiome. For example, recent studies of emulsifiers (binding agents found commonly in sauces such as mayonnaise and ketchup as well as soya and meat products) have shown that they have the side-effect of clumping together gut microbes, thus reducing their diversity and making them produce abnormal-fat producing chemicals.”
4. Eat more prebiotic foods
These can help boost your beneficial gut bacteria by providing them with the fuel they need to thrive. They contain types of fibre that your good bacteria particularly love feeding on, which, when broken down, release anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids which help boost sleep and mood.
The greater the amount of new and varied ingredients you can incorporate into your diet, the better, as it’ll help support a greater range of microbes - as a general rule, the greater the diversity of microbes you have, the healthier you’ll be. Eve recommends eating the rainbow where vegetables are concerned. “Some of the highest prebiotic foods that help to feed bacteria in the gut include garlic, onion, leeks, chicory, sprouted oats and sourdough, although if you are a sufferer with IBS, then go easy with these as they can aggravate symptoms.” For dietary advice if you suffer from IBS, check out our SOS page here . Following a low-FODMAP diet can also help.
5. Increase your intake of fermented foods
Rich in probiotics, fermented foods provide a direct source of beneficial bacteria to help up your numbers. Eve’s top picks include sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir (milk or water), organic yogurt, cheese and kombucha (a fizzy fermented green tea).
6. Take a probiotic
In addition to diet, a probiotic can help give your microbiome a boost and as a result, your mood too. A multi-strain liquid probiotic such as Symprove , from £79, can be especially effective and has also been shown to help those with IBS and IBD manage their symptoms. It contains four naturally occurring species - L. rhamnosus, E. faecium, L. plantarum and L. acidophilus, the latter having been found to be particularly beneficial for the relief of anxiety.
In addition, there are two other strains worth looking for in the ingredients list of your probiotic - lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and bifidobacterium longum R0175. “[These] have been studied extensively and found to influence mood positively,” comments co-founder of Victoria Health and qualified pharmacist, Shabir Daya . “A probiotic supplement containing both these specific probiotic strains, called Florassist Mood , £26, has been the subject of human trials and found to relieve the symptoms of anxiety and low mood while also helping to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. One of the studies showed a 50 per cent plus decrease in low mood scores and a 55 per cent improvement in anxiety scores.”
7. Get moving...and meditating
There are also studies to show that exercise can help enhance the number of beneficial microbial species in your gut and enrich your microflora diversity too. If your exercise of choice has de-stressing benefits, even better, to help you fit in some much-needed ‘rest and digest’ time into your day. As Eve points out: “Practises such as gentle yoga, Pilates and meditation are essential in this day and age. Even gentle walking can give a calming effect. The famous Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said that washing up can be meditative if you want it to be! The point is to find something that helps your mind to be less ‘busy’.”
There’s a wide variety of options at your fingertips to help - quite literally. Strides in smartphone tech and the increased use of ‘Smart TVs’, mean you’re able to stream workouts straight from the internet to your living room with greater ease than ever. For yoga inspo, try Movement for Modern Life, an expert-led yoga platform which offers everything from Yoga Nidra to Yin Yoga (start your free trial here) or the newly launched interactive FIIT app .
For meditation and mindfulness, I’m currently using Buddhify , £1.99. Offering a range of options to suit everything from a hectic commute to a sleepless night and even office breaks, it’s been created with the demands of working life in mind. If you’ve got 30-minutes to spare though, head to hypnotherapist and anxiety expert, Chloe Brotheridge’s website, where you’ll be able to download a free guided meditation . Chloe also recommends the following meditative visualisation exercise to try when stress strikes: "Visualise your gut as a stream. If you suffer from constipation, imagine being able to speed up the flow and remove anything that might be blocking the stream. If it's diarrhoea - visualise being able to stem the flow down by adding rocks and twigs and calming the stream down."
Allocating even just a small part of your day to look after your mental health will pave the way to better gut health.
Disclaimer: Certain supplements are used for different reasons and a one-size-fits-all approach shouldn’t be adopted. In addition, pregnant women and anyone on medication should always consult a doctor before embarking on a supplements programme.