The brain and the gut are more connected than you may initially think. They are actually constantly communicating, since the gut lining contains more neurons than the spinal cord! With that in mind, it is no wonder that stress, anxiety, and difficult periods in life can show up in gastrointestinal symptoms and digestive upset. But what is really happening to cause this and why is it important?

As mentioned, the gut contains its own system of neuron connections, known as the intrinsic or enteric nervous system, which is a smaller part of the larger autonomic nervous system. It is controlled by the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), and is so impactful that it is often described as a second brain in the body. The gut microbiome is another significant aspect to this gut-brain connection, as it includes the plentiful and healthy bacteria and fungi ecosystem that lives in the digestive tract, also with the ability to communicate things to the brain.

This can also happen in the reverse direction, with the brain sending messages to the gut, which helps explain the conversation of stress affecting the gut.

So when you are feeling stressed or anxious, the autonomic nervous system triggers our “fight or flight”, or sympathetic state response. This would happen to humans in the past for truly life threatening events; but, since most modern and privileged humans are not facing this on a day to day basis, we have adapted to still have these responses with a much more common event, such as work stressors, emails and meetings, difficult interactions, and long hours. We can even remain in this sympathetic state by continuing to be distracted throughout the day, with no thanks to common things we interact with such as social media, online platforms, phones going off with infinite new pieces of information, etc.

For example, if you are attempting to slow down and take a break by eating a meal and scrolling through messages on your phone and social media, your brain is taking in this information as a distracted and sympathetic state, not allowing proper digestion to occur.

This is happening due to the release of hormones such as cortisol, noradrenaline, adrenaline, and CRF. Those hormones trigger the action of the nervous system to de-prioritize the process of digestion, diverting blood flow to the limbs of the body and slowing down the production of stomach acid.

But what does this mean in the short and long term for your body and health?

● Short term – heartburn, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, lower nutrient absorption, lower stomach acid, less digestive enzymes

● Long term – nutrient deficiencies, IBS, leaky gut or increased intestinal permeability, gut dysbiosis, continuation of the cycle with increased stress

And what can we do about it?

Many things! One of the impactful and most simple actions is when you are eating, only do that. Do not look at your phone, watch tv, drive, etc. Focus on mindful eating; it can have a larger effect on digestive issues than you may think.

Other options include –

● Eating a nutrient dense diet

● Implementing magnesium glycinate

● Working meditation, journaling, and/or yoga into your regular routine

● Having chamomile tea, digestive bitters, or digestive enzymes before a meal

● Chew your food, a lot

● Deep breathing and vagus nerve stimulation before meals

● Smelling lavender oil before meals

Give some of these things a try and see if it makes a difference on stress levels and your GI health!