Trust your gut…

16 May 2024

Ever heard the saying  “Trust your gut”?

Your digestive system is more complex than you think. Within the walls of your digestive system lies the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The ENS is made up of two layers of approximately 400-600 million neurons. (Gastroenterol Res Pract)

The ENS is also known as the body’s “second brain”. Your gut and brain are in constant connection with each other, sending messages back and forth. This means that good health or bad health in one can affect the other, they have an interdependent relationship.

Your vagus nerve controls lots of things inside your body, like your digestive system, your immune system and heart functions. Although many of the functions are involuntary, meaning you have no conscious control over them, you can consciously use your vagus nerve to your advantage.

Fight or flight is your body’s natural response to stress. When we are exposed to sudden high stress, our body activates the fight or flight response in an attempt for “survival”. We either flee the scene or fight. This primal response to stress/threat rarely translates to our modern reality. We can’t run or hide when times are tough, and we are rarely exposed to a situation that requires us to try and stand up to a bear… so the stress either dissipates or lingers.

When your body is exposed to long-term chronic stress, hormones like cortisol and adrenaline kick into gear and wreak havoc on your mind and body. Over time, people usually develop various health issues like anxiety, mood swings, gut inflammation, or even chronic pain.

You already know you can train your body to strengthen and improve your body. You can also train your body to fight stress or your response to fight or flight situations. With the right practice and techniques, you can train your vagus nerve to send good messages to your body that mean it’s time to relax and destress instead, leading to improvements in wellbeing, pain, mood and resilience towards stressful situations (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Journal, 2018).

How can we train the Vagus Nerve?

The main way we can train the Vagus Nerve is by slow deep belly breathing. Using breathing exercises and relaxation techniques like meditation can help us focus on the rhythm of ourbreathing, rather than stress or pain (with reason!). Mindfulness and yoga are also great activities to help us move and breathe with more intention, helping improve the long-termhealth and response of the vagus nerve.

Breathing techniques work best when you do them regularly, consider making them part of your exercise or daily routine before bed to decompress. They can be done either sitting or standing and make sure you’re as comfortable as possible when you carve out the time to do them- don’t wear restrictive clothes and if it’s doable loosen them as much as possible before you start.

Deep breathing for stress (NHS)

  • Let your breath flow as deep down into your belly before you feel like you’re forcing it.
  • If it feels right, breathe slow and with intention through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • If you can gently breathe in for 5 seconds, counting in your head can also help, but don’t worry if you can’t reach 5 seconds just do what you can.
  • The same with your exhale, breathe out slowly for 5 seconds and repeat this several times and you will notice how different your body feels.

Sometimes it can be strange for people to do these types of exercise on their own, try following along with guided meditation or a visual video to help you along. It’s a good place to start if you’re a beginner.

Another way we can help our mind and body connection is to understand how the gut and mind are connected, by focusing on gut health and microbiomes.

Your gut provides approximately 95% of your serotonin (IMCJ). Serotonin is one of the body’s 4 ‘Happy Hormones’. The 4 feel good hormones are dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin. (Harvard Medical School). These hormones also send signals throughout the body and can affect how we feel. Serotonin is similar to dopamine.

When dopamine is released in the brain, we feel a temporary sense of pleasure. When released, serotonin creates a longer feeling of happiness or positive wellbeing.

So, how can we help the body release more serotonin by caring for our gut?

Microbiomes are bacteria that live in your body. Your body has up to 1000 species of bacteria that help with digestion, destroys any harmful bacteria, and therefore helps control and support your immune system. Your gut microbiomes are the ecosystem of microbes that live in your intestines and like bacteria, some are more helpful than others.

Up to 30-40% of the global population has bowel functioning problems at any given time (John Hopkins Medicine) Having good gut health and healthy gut microbiomes are essential for your overall health and mental wellbeing. Studies (Nature Microbiology) have shown a specific link between gut microbes and depression.

When your body doesn’t have enough good bacteria, it causes an imbalance and bad bacteria start to spread and thrive. People can suffer all kinds of symptoms when a gut bacteria imbalance is present.

Here are 5 signs that might mean your gut is imbalanced (Forbes Health)

  1. Gas or Bloating
    If you experience gas or bloating after eating certain foods, it could mean that your gut bacteria struggle to break down foods the way it should or that you have a food intolerance. It is estimated that up to 20% of the world’s population suffers from a food intolerance.
  2. Unintentional changes in weight
    If you aren’t trying to lose or gain weight and your body weight changes, it could mean that your gut bacteria are the cause. Some bacteria inside the gut can have a large impact on how many calories your body extracts from food.
  3. Skin Issues
    An imbalance of gut bacteria can contribute to skin issues such as dandruff, eczema or acne. Some people find that their skin breaks out after eating lots of sugar, salt or saturated fat.Although gut microbiomes like prebiotics can help, skin issues caused by hormones or genetics can not be solved with changes in diet.
  4. Sugar Cravings
    The bacterium inside your gut feeds on different things. Some grow best on dietary fibres, others on yeast or sugar. An imbalance of the ones that love sugar can result in more sugar cravings as the more you give into the cravings, the more influential the inflammatory sugar loving bacteria gets.
  5. Mood changes & concentration difficulties
    Imbalances in gut health are linked to depression, anxiety or sleep issues causing mood changes and making it harder to concentrate. Over half of people on average with irritable bowel syndrome also have depression, anxiety or sleep problems and we know that depression and generalised anxiety disorder is often linked to gastrointestinal issues.

Gut health can be improved with the right type of lifestyle or dietary changes. You are what you eat sometimes rings true!

Eating fibre rich foods can improve your gut health and feed those healthy bacteria. Eating wholefoods like nuts, fruits or vegetables can help prevent bacteria growing that is normally linked to inflammation or diseases. Fermented foods have been linked to improved digestive health, yoghurt, sauerkraut, or tempeh are great foods to incorporate into your diet.

It is important to make sure your diet consists of a diverse range of food whilst limiting ultra processed foods as much as possible. When you are eating, try and eat slowly to reduce the likelihood of gas or bloating when rushed.

Staying hydrated will help move things along in the gut and makes sure you absorb as much goodness as possible from the nutrients in your food. Drinking enough water can also increase the diversity of bacteria in your gut, helping promote healthier conditions.

Not getting enough quality sleep can also wreak havoc on your digestive system. Similarly, moving enough with regular cardio activity can help stimulate the inner muscles within your gut and move things along, helping to keep things balanced.

Wellbeing and gut health go hand in hand. Impacts on digestion and nutrients influence the immune system and mental health, with the gut microbiomes playing a key part in various aspects of our overall health.

Taking care of yourself by minding your lifestyle and adopting a healthier diet helps your gut thrive and keep stress levels as low as possible. Understanding the interconnected relationship within your body can help you lead a happier, healthier and more comfortable life.