You know when you have a gut feeling that something isn't right for you and that feeling transforms into feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed? As it turns out, there's a strong link between your gut health and your mental health, so those "gut feelings" are usually worth listening to.
In today's post, we're going to talk all about the link between gut health and mental health. We'll answer all of your top questions on the subject, while also sharing helpful hacks for boosting your gut health and your mental health in one.
What is the Link Between Gut Health & Your Mental Health?
But first, let's break down the link between gut health and mental health and exactly how it works.
Also known as the gut-brain connection, there's a strong link between mental health and your digestive systems.
Just consider what Harvard Health Publishing has to say on the topic:
The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines. For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach's juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person's stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That's because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected.
Now, as for the scientific explanation of this effect? It comes down to the "little brain" that exists in your digestive system.
As Hopkins Medicine explains: "Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS). And it’s not so little. The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum."
Now, let's talk more about this gut-brain axis and get to some of your big questions on the subject!
What does the gut-brain axis do?
Most significantly, the gut-brain axis "links emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions." This means there are complicated and extensive connections between cognition and gut health and how their related systems communicate with one another.
For example, mental health conditions, including depression, can often manifest as digestive issues.
There's still a lot researchers don't know about these connections and how they work. But one thing is for sure: there's a strong link between gut health and mental health and it's one worth exploring and studying in greater detail.
Does that mean GI symptoms are "all in my head?"
Take a look at how Harvard Health explains this connection, including the all too real effects of brain health and digestion:
Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it becomes easier to understand why you might feel nauseated before giving a presentation, or feel intestinal pain during times of stress. That doesn't mean, however, that functional gastrointestinal conditions are imagined or "all in your head." Psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and other bowel symptoms. Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as symptoms. In other words, stress (or depression or other psychological factors) can affect movement and contractions of the GI tract.
In addition, many people with functional GI disorders perceive pain more acutely than other people do because their brains are more responsive to pain signals from the GI tract. Stress can make the existing pain seem even worse.
Based on these observations, you might expect that at least some patients with functional GI conditions might improve with therapy to reduce stress or treat anxiety or depression. Multiple studies have found that psychologically based approaches lead to greater improvement in digestive symptoms compared with only conventional medical treatment.
What is the microbiome?
We can't discuss gut health and mental health without talking about the microbiome in greater detail. Every human has a gut microbiome that's home to trillions (yes, trillions!) of fungi, bacteria, and other microbes.
Often, when there's an imbalance in the microbiome is when we start seeing physical symptoms associated with gut health, including irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive issues.
That's because your gut microbiome is responsible for communicating with your brain, and it's the guide for digestion and digestive health. When something isn't right in the microbiome, trouble is bound to follow! That's why so many people find it so beneficial to take probiotics, for example. They help ensure a healthy balance in the microbiome that can have positive effects throughout the entire body.
However, probiotics are just one small piece of the microbiome puzzle. There are so many things to consider when it comes to creating a healthy gut microbiome. And one of the best and often most unexplored options? Vagus nerve stimulation!
Before we get into this connection in greater detail, consider this: Your gut microbiome is a direct connection to your brain, via your vagus nerve. This information superhighway isn't just responsible for a healthy digestive system, either.
Let's talk about that next.
What is the vagus nerve?
Your vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the body, controls a big part of your body’s automatic responses: AKA: the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s named after the Latin word for “wandering,” because it starts at the brain, then travels near the ear, before going on to every major organ in your body.
From here, it controls a vast range of functions and communicates sensory information between the brain and the organs. We've already talked about the connection with digestion. But did you know the vagus nerve is also crucial for activating your relaxation response and helping regulate tension?
And the stronger your vagus response, the more likely you may be to recover quickly from stressful events. And with less stress, you can expect a number of physical and mental improvements.
These include not only better digestion, but also a brighter mood, better sleep, and a more tranquil life in general.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation for Improving Gut Health and Mental Health
Vagus nerve stimulation or VNS can play a big role in improving gut health and mental health alike. In the past, many people relied on invasive methods of stimulating this nerve, including with the surgical implantation of a stimulating device.
Alternatively, there are holistics methods that have been in use for thousands of years. Things like meditation, chanting, and cold water plunges have all been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve.
But let's say you don't want to jump into cold water in the middle of the work day or undergo surgery to reap the rewards of VNS. Is there a less invasive, more accessible option? Yes! Meet your new best friend: Xen by Neuvana.
This patented electronic device delivers gentle micropulses through headphones directly to the vagus nerve located in your ear. It pairs wirelessly to your Neuvana app, where you can customize your sessions with your favorite music or sounds. The result? Improved focus and calm anywhere you are.
At the same time, many people begin to experience other benefits, including improved digestion thanks to the connection with the vagus nerve, gut health, and mental health.
Did you learn a lot about gut health and mental health from this post?
Here are three more posts to read next:
- The Vagus Nerve and Digestion: How Are They Connected?
- How to Improve Concentration: Brain Optimization Hacks for Peak Performance
- Boost Your Cognitive Health With These Biohacks