Expressions such as ‘gut feeling’ or ‘butterflies in your stomach’ aren’t just made up randomly, they come from a physical sensation we get in our stomachs when we experience happiness, worry, or nerves. In reality, our stomach and gut are in constant communication with the brain and just as our mental state can affect how our stomachs feel, our stomachs can also affect our mood and brain function.
Did you know that the stomach is sometimes known as the second brain? In the gastrointestinal tract, there are around 500 million nerve fibres and a whole system of neurons, which is a type of cell that can communicate with the brain. Together, these components constitute their own nervous system, which is known as the enteric nervous system. The gut can send signals through the nerve fibres to the parts of the brain that control things such as processing of feelings, memory, motivation, and sensations of anxiety.
Communication between the brain and the gut can take place via different channels, such as nerve fibres, hormones, and cells. One important communication channel is the vagus nerve, which stretches all the way from the stomach to the brain stem. The communication goes both ways, meaning the brain can send messages to the gut and the gut can send messages to the brain.
Since the gut and the brain are so closely connected, a healthy gut flora is important for your mental wellbeing as well as your cognitive function.
The gut flora is influenced primarily by diet, since fibre is the main food for gut bacteria. But, apart from low fibre diets, stress is one factor that can really influence the health of your gut flora.
When we experience stress, different types of substances and hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenalin, and dopamine, are released. Our immune cells and the good bacteria are sensitive to these, while bad bacteria enjoy them and like to multiply among stress hormones. Longer periods of stress can therefore cause an imbalance in our gut flora.
1. Try meditation– Meditation doesn’t need to be complicated! Set aside 5 minutes of your day to sit in silence and focus on your breath.
2. Think about your breathing– When we become stressed, we automatically find it more difficult to breathe, so when you feel stress approaching – take five deep, conscious breaths.
3. Move around in nature– Try to get out into nature for at least a few minutes a day. Leave your headphones off and focus on being present in the moment.