We’ve got a gut feeling that you’ve experienced butterflies in your stomach on more than one occasion. And chances are this physical response from your body was triggered by some kind of emotional stress—a source of mental anguish like a public speaking engagement, the first day at a new job, or the mere sight of your high school crush.
Article at a Glance
The Connection Between Your Gut & Your Feelings
- Mood, anxiety, and certain brain-related conditions are intimately linked to your gut
- The mind can provoke bodily reactions in the gastrointestinal system
The Gut-Brain Axis
- The relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract
- Studies show that brain and gut communicate with one another and often influence one another’s health
The Vagus Nerve
- The wandering nerve; responsible for the mind-body connection
- Runs from your neck to your abdomen
- Studies show the vagus nerve helps us recognize the humanity of other people
- Vagus nerve connects your brain to your Enteric Nervous System, which governs the gut’s functions
Food Can Alter Mood
- The majority of your serotonin receptors are in your gut, which means diet can affect your mood
- Inflammation-producing foods can have an adverse effect on mood
- Certain nutrients can protect against depression and other mood disorders
- Antioxidant properties of certain foods are important to a healthy mood
One of the more interesting reversals of public perception is how we characterize those nervous stomach pains. For a long time, the churning and burning of the gut in the face of stress was written off as part of a melodramatic display by a weak-willed person prone to theatrics. Now, years of research has proven that those butterflies were real all along.
Indeed, the gut-brain connection is not pseudo-scientific quackery. It links anxiety to stomach problems and vice-versa, signaling the brain’s direct effect on the stomach and intestines that goes both ways—troubled intestines fire off signals to the brain just as readily as a worried brain can stir up physical feelings in the gut. The intimate connection between the brain and the gastrointestinal system makes both of them sensitive to anger, anxiety, sadness, and even happiness.
So, physical pain can be “all in your head,” but not in the way a closed-minded doctor from the 1950s might downplay your condition. The psychology of the mind combines with physical factors to provoke bowel symptoms and other bodily pains, actually affecting the movement and contractions of your gastrointestinal tract, causing inflammation and making you susceptible to possible infection.
What Is The Gut-Brain Axis?
The relationship between your brain and gastrointestinal tract is known as the gut-brain axis, a communication line between your stomach and your brain populated by millions of microorganisms all working toward full-body homeostasis. And the evidence isn’t merely anecdotal, as studies have demonstrated that individuals with conditions such as depression and anxiety display gut microbiota that is altered beyond what is considered typical.
Conversely, altering that microbiota can influence the brain, with one study in particular showing that the addition of a heavy dose of certain probiotics into a person’s regular diet affect regions of the brain that dictate emotion. Meanwhile, another study took that thought a step further, demonstrating that consuming probiotics could potentially decrease psychological stress.
The Vagus Nerve: Connecting Human Behavior & Feelings
One of the main superhighways that makes up the gut-brain axis is the vagus nerve, which sends signals via neurons in both directions. The vagus nerve runs from your neck to your abdomen, managing a host of reflexes, including your fight or flight response. But it’s not one solid chord—instead, the vagus nerve is a sinuous bundle with multiple branches that connects most of the major organs between your brain and your colon.
Since it hits nearly all of your major organs, this wandering nerve is largely responsible for the mind-body connection. But what is perhaps most intriguing is how the vagus nerve is associated with another determiner of how we feel—and that’s how we connect to one another. Besides linking directly to the nerves that coordinate eye contact with others, tune your ears to the sound of another person’s voice, and regulate facial expressions related to emotions, the vagus nerve influences the release of feel-good hormones prolactin and oxytocin—among others—that are crucial to social bonding.
In your gut, the vagus nerve stimulates the processes that get your digestive juices flowing, keeping you regular and protecting against irritable bowel syndrome. To enable this function, the vagus nerve aids in the release of histamine in the stomach cells, which in turn releases stomach acid to help digestion.
The vagus nerve is the connection between your brain’s nervous system and your Enteric Nervous System (ENS), which governs the functions of your gut.
Keeping this system healthy is vital to how you feel, with one study demonstrating that healthy microbiota are important for the normal transfer of information between microbiota and the nervous system—suggesting that gut microbiota impacts the cells of your ENS in numerous ways.
Neurotransmitters Tune Into Your Gut
Though a major connector, the vagus nerve isn’t alone in linking your brain to your gut. By now, you’re likely well aware that neurotransmitters are chemicals in your brain—such as serotonin—that influence your feelings and your emotions. But what you might not know is that your gut cells and the many trillions of gut microbes also produce neurotransmitters, including serotonin.
Meanwhile, your gut also produces another neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric (GABA), which regulate anxiety and depression. And as it’s produced in your gut, studies show that certain probiotics can actually increase the production of GABA, making anxiety and depression more manageable.
Your Gut And Good Mood Food
With 90 percent of serotonin receptors in your gut, it’s clear that gut health and diet can have a profound effect on your mood. Think about it: certain antidepressants bear side effects that are chiefly gut-related, like nausea and other gastrointestinal problems. This points out rather succinctly the two-way connection between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve and neurotransmitters.
This leads to the conclusion that eating a healthy, balanced diet that avoids inflammation-producing foods may help support a healthy mood. One study specifically shows that adhering to a healthy Mediterranean diet can have a direct link on how good or bad you feel mentally. Another study outlines the specific vitamins and minerals that when included in your diet could potentially protect against depression and other mood disorders. These nutrients include folic acid, iron, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and zinc.
For many of these nutrients, what makes them so important to health is their antioxidant properties. As we know, antioxidants are helpful scavengers that purge your body of free radicals, thereby cleaning up your cells and tissues. Fruits and vegetables are well known for being rich in antioxidants, particularly highly touted antioxidants like phenolic flavonoids, lycopene, carotenoids, glucosinolates, resveratrol, lutein and zeaxanthin.
Possessing varying benefits to the body, these antioxidants work their way through the gut and could very well fight neurological ailments and adverse mood conditions. Studies show that by reducing roving gangs of free radicals, antioxidants could potentially improve the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression.
Practical Suggestions For Improving Your Mood Through A Healthier Gut
With so many different resources at our disposal, we are met every day with options that could help improve our overall health. And when it comes to improving your mood through a healthier gut, the options are truly accessible—as long as you know where to look.
Check out these practical suggestions you can introduce into your daily life. Your body, brain, and mood will thank you!
- Avoid foods with loaded with additives and preservatives that can disturb your gut microbiota. Choose whole foods in as close to their natural forms as possible.
- Instead of buying containers of juice that are often high in sugar, increase your consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. These are a great source of fiber. And if it’s juice that you want, consider juicing the fruits yourself.
- Speaking of fiber, look for sources of soluble and insoluble fiber, which can keep your digestive tract running smoothly.
- Incorporate probiotics and prebiotics into your diet. Probiotics are “good bacteria,” while prebiotics are what probiotics themselves eat. These two elements are key players to digestive health.
- Limit your intake of refined or simple carbohydrates: they have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients.
- Incorporate more fish into your diet, especially fish with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.