The Gut-Brian Axis: Digestion is Linked to Mood, Immunity, Behavior and more
Updated: Mar 30
Learn about the connections between multiple major systems in the body, and what you can do to heal/re-balance them
Author: Meagan Roback, RMT
All the systems in the human body work closely together with the ultimate goal of obtaining and ideally maintianing homeostasis, or what is more commonly referred to as balance. Of all the systems, a very powerful element in one's overall health is digestion, a strong yet delicate combination of hormones, naturally occurring bacteria, specialized immune cells and complex neurological components. If we take a snapshot of this vital system, the gut would include the esophagus, then slide down to the stomach, both small and large intestines, with special attention to the gallbladder, liver and pancreas for their contribution of a variety of essential digestive juices.
Did you know that approximately 75% of your immune system is actually located in the digestive system? Or perhaps consider the fact that the digestive tract is where we find the greatest number of a very important mood altering neurotransmitter called serotonin - makes sense we would take some time to ensure it is getting what it needs in order to function optimally.
The gut and brain send messages to each other in a fluid dance known as the gut-brain connection, gut-neuroendocrine connection or gut-brain axis via the enteric nervous system (a semi-automatic or semi-autonomus nervous system) located in the lining the gastrointestinal system (GI tract) from your esophagus to your anus. Let's pause for a moment and remember that the GI tract is over 30 feet long - home to hundreds of millions of nerve cells transmitting information and directing movement, and we are in the driver's seat.
When imbalances are occurring in the gut, there is a wide variety of physical, mental and emotional symptoms and dis-eases which surface. These issues range from mild to severe levels of intensity depending on the individual since everyone's micro-biome is unique. Some of the more physical signs that are commonly directly related to gut health are, but not limited to:
abdominal cramping and pain
bloating and gas
Common digestive disorders include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), cancer, gallstones, celiac disease, crohn's, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In addition to the physical experience, each of these conditions has an impact on one's mental and emotional well being. To learn more about this increasingly popular perspective and area in the gut-brain axis field of research, please check out this informative article published in 2020, where a "literature review established a strong link of microbes in the gastrointestinal tract, affecting how individuals think and how the gut-brain axis serves as an essential pathway in considering the management of several mental issues and psychiatric illnesses."
So what can we do about it? How can we get our power back and reset to a better quality of life? From my personal ad professional experience, I am happy to inform you that there are quite a few options.
In my personal journey, I began to give my digestion more of my attention after two rounds of post-secondary education. Yep... it took me that long to get going on this, even being in higher education institutions and having my nose in a lot of books (that did not speak about gut health much beyond the ever so popular food pyramid). I was taking on a new direction in my gut health, which was extremely challenging considering I was in pretty deep already with a long list of symptoms, experiencing a lot of physical pain, and mental/emotional distress. Without a clue of what to do, or that I could do anything for that matter, I was desperate to feel better - and I was determined to do this naturally. Here are some of the paths that I found to be the most effective (more or less in order of how I experienced them):
More veggies, less packages. I began to eat more whole foods that come from the fresh food section, and I started cooking more. This meant less time at restaurants and more time in my kitchen. First positive experience was how this lifestyle change was more gentle on my wallet - so I redirected some of those funds for yoga, which I loved (I had decided give up competitive sports due to injuries which I learned later also had an impact on my gut health via my spinal health). Note: I started to notice when I wasn't feeling well, it wasn't as intense at it usually was.
I got outside more, especially when the weather was nice. Walks made a big difference on not only my physical health, but also my emotional and mental health. Walking with my sweet canine companion would actually quite literally get things moving, but I recognized I needed to do more to see more lasting benefits.
I began to really increase my water intake. I knew water was important, and so easy. My bottle got bigger and it came everywhere with me, in my backpack full of fresh snacks of course. I also started to pay more attention to my water sources, which turns out was a really good thing as purified water was much more gentle on my digestion. It was around now that I learned that cognitive function improves with drinking room temperature water. I noticed my energy started to increase and I also noted some improvement in my headaches.
I began to see a chiropractor. I didn't realize how much old injuries and my days as a waitress/bartender had impacted the functioning of my spine, particularly my low back which houses the peripheral nerves that innervate (and power up) the digestive tract amongst other areas of the body. I would see my chiropractor for an adjustment and my digestion and headaches would improve. What a relief! I also got some orthotics and my feet all the way to my head began to feel better. I started to receive recommendations for some practical lifestyle changes on a variety of things I never even would of thought of like how I sat, stood and slept. My day to day experiences in life were improving even more and at a faster rate.
I started seeing a nutritionist/dietitian and went through a program. They gave me a more expansive yet more focused direction in discovering how to prepare balanced meals, a more positive relationship with food and helped me implement small changes into my life that were bite sizes I could chew. This approach was perfect for what I was ready for and needed at this point in my journey. I began to feel more empowered in my ability to heal myself. I began to see how having the right information for my body and my needs gave me more control over how I felt on so many levels.
I brought homeopathy into my life. This was interesting as I never even heard of this before and was intrigued as I was referred to a practitioner who used this in their practice. I was thoroughly impressed with it's effectiveness and how gentle it was on my system, and I was absolutely thrilled that it was natural medicine. I experienced both tinctures and little white pellets for a long list of health concerns - both of which created positive changes in a different way than I had ever experienced before. I stuck with it and even today I use homeopathy as a regular part of health care for my family. Note: There are studies that show very impressive results on the effectiveness and safety of this natural medicine if you are interested.
A Naturopathic Doctor was recommended to me. Another natural healthcare field I had never heard of before, and I didn't understand what it was, so I looked it up and decided to try it. I thank myself everyday for making this call. It was the right time to bring this into my life and it brought me a wealth of information I could act on in ways that worked for me. It was at this time that I went through specialized testing and given supplements, additional nutrition advice, and even more lifestyle suggestions and self care direction that were targeted suggestions for my needs. Get this --- S
ome research highlights that beneficial bacteria in the gut can reduce anxiety, depression and neurotic behavior, and even combat the effects of stress.
What all of my experiences throughout my personal health journey have taught me thus far is that I have the power to make positive changes in my life, and that in the end we actually heal from within. I now incorporate all of these practices (and more) in a rhythm that works for me. My health and well being are better than they have ever been and I feel more confident in my healthcare and self-care choices. I am forever grateful to all of the amazing practitioners that I have had the opportunity to learn from, for their knowledge, guidance and ongoing support.
I wish you well in your journey, and hope you find what you are looking for. If you are ready to take the next step in your gut health journey, feel free to schedule a free consultation with our Naturopathic Doctor, Homeopath, Registered Dietitian, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Chiropractor, or perhaps begin by taking a stroll in mother nature or visiting the fresh food section in your favorite grocery store. Whatever your choice is to make a positive change, rest assured it is a good move.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. The content provided is for informational purposes only. Use of the content provided on this blog post is at your sole discretion.