What’s the deal with gut health? Why is it the focus of so many wellness enthusiasts? It’s because the gut (also called the digestive system) is a big deal: every dimension of our health starts at digestion. It’s literally where our food and nutrition choices first start to affect our bodies.
It also helps explain the gut to brain connection, a nebulous bond between the nervous and digestive systems that’s only recently been confirmed by science and research. Not only does nutrition obviously influence brain health (starting from the gut), but mental health and emotional states— including stress, anxiety, depression, and more— can influence gut health in powerful ways as well.
And it doesn’t end there. While the gut can influence the brain and vice versa, this relationship also forms a triad with your immune system. Whether one affects the other, the result can be a feedback loop of pain, inflammation, and nervous system distress— and it can all begin with something as easy to overlook as being too stressed out!
Stress can indeed affect digestion. This in turn interferes with how well nutrients are absorbed, and then have domino effects everywhere in the body. The good news: foods, vitamins, and even anxiety or stress management can help restore the gut to brain connection back into balance.
The gut to brain connection: how it works
It can seem strange and unlikely that the gut and brain (and thus the entire nervous system) could be as closely connected as they are. But it’s true: a lot of it has to do with a little known (but enormous!) nerve that runs through our bodies, all the way from the brain down to the lower intestines, called the vagus nerve.
Ever heard of “fight or flight?” Or “rest and digest?” How about having nervous butterflies in your stomach— or feeling like you didn’t want to eat or had no appetite because you were too anxious or stressed? All of these are because of the vagus nerve and messages being sent from the brain, to the gut, and back again.
When we’re stressed or caught up in “survival” situations, the body has a way of diverting energy, blood flow, and nutrient resources away from the digestive system to the brain (with help of the vagus nerve). This way our senses can be sharp, our thought processes clear, and our movements quick to provide us with means of escape—or defense. Sadly, the result of being in these states is that digestion is slowed or even completely shut down.
So, what if you’re caught up in a stressful situation for a long period of time? (It happens to all of us at some point.) What if it has to do with a job you have to go to, a relationship in your life, a living situation, conflict, financial issues, or dealing with grief or loss?
Nowadays, we humans don’t deal with situations in a literal “fight” or “flight” sense. We can’t fight our way out of stressful problems or even run away from them necessarily (in most cases, at least!). Instead, we’re left to deal with stress, anxiety, or depression indirectly, and handle the stress effects on body functions (especially the gut) as best we can.
How stress affects the body
The gut to brain connection is very real. It gets even more real when you start to factor in another bodily system that both the gut and brain influence: the immune system!
That’s right: stress only starts the chain reaction. When this begins shutting off the digestive system and affecting gut health, the entire thing starts to snowball. Because the gut also can’t digest foods as well (especially difficult to digest or unhealthy foods), inflammation triggered by immunity can set in. But that’s not all: because the gut under stress struggles to absorb nutrients from good foods too, the brain may begin to suffer even more when not getting what it needs!
Stress effects on the body can also include chronic inflammation that sparks up all over the body. And yes, you guessed it: also right there in the gut! The chain reaction continues.
It’s this gut, brain, and immunity feedback loop that can eventually lead to higher anxiety levels from stress. Unless you’re diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, what anxiety means in some people is a lack of essential vitamins, minerals, and a cleaner diet on top of the things directly stressing them out— though you can also experience anxiety when life is otherwise calm from not getting adequate nutrition (yep, that can be from poor gut health, too).
Like a bird or a kite that has caught an updraft of wind, without any stop to this chain reaction the stress and anxiety continue to rise up, and up…and up. If you especially struggle with anxiety in the morning or anxiety upon waking, this is often a signal that you are dealing with excessive stress, which can be the most intense in the morning time when cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) is most active.
Foods for a healthy gut function: good for stress, anxiety, and immunity, too
What stress does to the body can seem pretty easy to miss— at first. Over a long period of time, its effects are insidious. With one’s immune system compromised and gut health floundering to keep up with demands of mind and body, chronic inflammation can erupt just about anywhere. This is why stress on the heart, and stress high blood pressure, are common concepts: too much stress is terrible for cardiovascular health. It all ties into gut health, the immune system, and inflammation too, and can effect far more than the heart of blood vessels.
And it can all start in the gut and with gut health. Besides managing your stress and talking to your doctor, how can we ramp up self-care for the gut in our personal lives? That’s simple: by turning to herbs and foods that boost the immune system, while also strengthening gut health.
Which foods boost the immune system and are a good diet for healthy gut?
- Acerola cherry
- Amla (Indian Gooseberry)
- Black pepper (enhances nutrient absorption)
- Chicory root
- King Trumpet Mushroom
- Lion’s mane mushroom
- Maitake mushroom
- Shiitake mushroom
- Sweet potato
From a supplement standpoint, here also are herbs, nutrients, and vitamins that boost the immune system and gut health:
- Chaga mushroom
- Holy basil
- Lemon Balm
- Vitamin A
- B vitamins (especially B12, pivotal to gut, immune, and nervous system health)
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
The benefit of probiotics
An article about gut health, immunity, and stress (as well as anxiety) can’t overlook the power and benefit of probiotics and probiotic foods!
Probiotic foods reintroduce helpful and healthy gut bacteria to the digestive tract. They may be the most powerful nutrient for restoring gut health, community, and stress combined, and can also be provided to the diet through supplements alone— though in a plant based whole food diet, you can get ample probiotics from live active vinegars (with the mother), kombucha, live fermented pickles, and other types of fermented vegetables (like kimchi).
Because poor gut health— as well as immune function, stress, and anxiety— can start with food and nutrition, it can also end with better food and nutrition. And don’t underestimate the gut to brain connection: taking care of your gut can have surprising benefits to the brain; and taking care of your brain and mental health can reap benefits for your gut and the rest of your body, too.
What changes would you like to make in your daily diet to drive a healthier gut to brain connection? Let us know what you think. We would love to hear from you….COMMENT BELOW!