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It’s a Gut Feeling: Optimising the Belly-Brain Axis

By Leila DiQuinzio 

In an ideal world we would all be frolicking around on the beach and in the rainforest,  eating, dancing, laughing, basking in the sun. But the world most of us live in is far from that,  filled with deadlines, chores, responsibilities, and disturbing news headlines. 

Where once upon a time these stressors would have come and gone like a lion on the attack  and then retreated, now they are an ever-present constant in our lives and we need to make a  conscious effort to remove ourselves: switch off, tune out, shut down, reset.  

At some point we’ve all experienced some form of anxiety, depression, irritability,  hopelessness, overwhelm, frustration, lack of motivation or inspiration. You might have  even been told “it’s all in your head”, but what if it was “all in your gut” instead?  

The gut, also known as our  second brainhas an enormous impact on our moods and  capacity to cope with stress. We can feel this as “butterflies in the stomach” when nervous  or excited, appetite and bowel changes when stressed, or that sinking stomach feeling when  delivered big news. 

Knowing this connection is so strong, imagine trying to eat while you’re upset, stressed,  distracted or working! These situations mean the gut isn’t ready to receive food, so no  wonder we experience bloating, burping, reflux, wind, and mushy stools or constipation.  

In other words, we could say that our “fight or flight” sympathetic stress response is often  switched on when we really need to be in our “rest and digest” parasympathetic mode.  

Mind-blowing facts about the gut-brain connection 

  • The gut is the only system in the body to have its own independently operating  branch of the nervous system called the  enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS has hundreds of millions of nerve cells, more than the spine itself, and  produces over  30 neurotransmitters, including our feel-good dopamine and anti anxiety gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). 
  • More than 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut. Serotonin is our mood boosting neurotransmitter but can also impact sleep, learning, and memory.The vagus nerve is our major gut-brain highway, where messages travel in both  directions. Whilst 20% of messages are sent from brain to gut, a whopping 80% of  messages come from the gut and travel to the brain.  
  • The gut microbiome weighs  approximately 2kg,  which is more than the human brainat 1.4kg. It contains thousands of species of microbes with around 20 million genes combined.
  • The connection between the microbiome and the mind has recently been termed  thepsychobiome. This describes bacteria that can change the way you think, feel  and act. 

Top 3 ways to optimise your gut health for moods 

Mediterranean diet wins again 

Limiting foods that cause inflammation and balancing your biochemistry through nutrition  such as in the Mediterranean diet, has been shown to support ahealthy microbiomeand reduce anxiety and depression

Include plenty of vegetables and fruits, legumes, quality grains with minimal processing,  fermented foods, and healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, fish, nuts and seeds. Keep dairy,  alcohol, and refined carbohydrates (especially sugar!) to a minimum.  

Use your breath 

Deep and slow breathing stimulates the activity of the vagus nerve connecting brain to gut. This studymeasured the effects of breathing for 5 minutes daily, the method was inhaling  for 4 seconds, exhaling for 6 seconds. This longer exhale showed a reduction in anxiety and  also physiological stress.  

Other ways to activate the vagus nerve include gargling, humming,chanting,singing,  laughing, yoga, stretching, and cold water therapy. 

Mindful eating 

Stress reduces our production of digestive juices (enzymes and hydrochloric acid) required  to breakdown a meal.  

Making mealtimes a ritual and taking the time to focus on the meal you are eating helps to  settle the nervous system and prepare the digestion. You can do this by eating in a calm  place without screens or work, and avoid eating while feeling stressed, anxious or  emotional.  

Stop to appreciate the sight and smell of your meal. This activates the cephalic phase of  digestion, stimulating the first release of gastric acids.  

Chew each mouthful well, digestion begins in your mouth with a combination of salivary  enzymes and the mechanical movement of your teeth. 

Savour your meal, enjoy it! Eating isn’t a chore, it’s our nourishment. 

If you feel like your moods are out of control, it might be time to take a look at your gut  health. Working with a qualified health professional can help you with a holistic approach to  boost your gut bugs and your moods.

About Leila

Leila is a qualified naturopath based in Melbourne. She specialises in chronic digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and leaky gut, and is passionate about eating a well-balanced diet, while still enjoying food. She believes living well doesn’t have to be a chore, and is keen to show us all how to manage our health – and enjoy it, too. 

Instagram:  @leila.naturopath

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