In the health and wellness industry we talk a lot about finding balance. Balance with food, balance with exercise, balance with self-care, balance with technology, balance with socializing. Throughout my own personal healing journey, I have discovered a balance that seems to be swept under the rug and kept quiet, receiving very little attention. Yet, in discovering this balance I have felt the greatest impact on my physical, mental, and emotional health. This is the gut-brain connection, and it plays a direct role in our physical and mental well-being.
What is gut health?
When I use the term gut, it is referring to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This begins at the mouth and ends at…well, it ends on the porcelain express. The GI tract includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, rectum, and anus.
The primary function of the gut is to absorb nutrients from what we eat and rid the body of solid waste. It is also responsible for keeping harmful, toxic substances out of our bodies and cultivating lots of good, healthy bacteria. When the gut is healthy and functioning, it does all these things well, but when it isn’t doing these things well, we develop illness and can experience both mental and physical health problems.
What is brain health?
When the brain is healthy, it is receiving the blood flow needed for optimal functioning and performance. Good brain health allows us to pay attention, focus, solve problems, effectively communicate, and—most importantly—live a long life.
There are many factors that can positively impact our brain health and cognitive function. Eating right, exercise, elimination of drinking/smoking, and actively doing things that require us to think (i.e., reading, puzzles, being social, learning, etc.). All of these activities are important to keeping our brain in tip-top shape.
Comparing mental health to physical health
As we get a little deeper into discussing the gut-brain connection, I will talk more about mental health and physical health. These two areas are very important and play a direct role in how our body functions and responds.
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we process feelings, how we think, and how we act. It also determines how we handle stress, socialize, and make decisions. It places a tremendous impact on our mood and behavior, and it can be altered by what we put into our bodies nutritionally.
Physical health also covers a wide range of areas, including diet, exercise, and . . . you guessed it, mental health. Maintaining good physical health is vital for overall well-being, and when in its optimal state, it allows the body to function as it was meant to function.
These two, let’s call them “states” of health, have an important relationship to each other. Think about the last time you experienced a high level of stress. Do you remember having an upset stomach, a headache, mood swings, increased sweating, or trouble thinking clearly? All these symptoms we experience when stressors are present likely go away when the stressors are removed. But I bet you didn’t know that the brain can create longer-lasting connections that can occur when our mental state doesn’t receive similar relief.
How are the gut and brain connected?
So, what’s the connection? When we experience emotions (like those in the stress example above), our GI tract, just like our brain and physical state, is also very sensitive. Science has dubbed our gut as the the “second brain”—or in fancy science terms, the enteric nervous system (ENS)—because it can operate on its own and communicate back and forth with our actual brain. These communications are made through physical or chemical means.
When we look internally, running from our gut, digestive organs, heart, lungs, and other vital organs within the gut’s direct connection to the brain, we have the vagus nerve. This nerve is responsible for controlling messages between the gut and the brain. I like to think of the vagus as the gut-brain highway, which serves as a physical communicator inside our body.
The second connection comes from the chemical communicators—things like hormones and neurotransmitters that send messages between the gut and brain. What’s really interesting is the relationship the vagus and these chemical communicators have with our gut microbiome. This is where all the good and bad bacteria populate and exist in balance to help prevent the overgrowth of bacteria that can be harmful to our health.
The gut microbiome has undergone a tremendous amount of research, and it is now speculated that any disruption in our normal gut bacteria balance can cause the immune system to overreact and cause inflammation to the GI tract. This can then lead to the development of symptoms affecting both the brain and the body, and eventually to disease. For example, those who have anxiety and/or depression can experience changes in the gut microbiome because of what happens inside the body when it has a stress response!
Getting our gut health in line means getting our brain health in line, and when both of these are in line, our entire body responds in a positive and healthy manner! The connection is REAL. As a health advocate, personal trainer, and nutrition coach, I strongly believe that we should be prioritizing our gut-brain health when it comes to disease prevention and healthy lifestyle management.