Have you ever had a gut-wrenching experience? Why do we get ‘butterflies' in our tummy when we’re nervous? Is there any science behind the mind-gut connection or is it purely imagined? Do our feelings affect our gastrointestinal system? Is there a link between mental illness and irritable bowel syndrome, for example? Sam Ntatalikas, wellbeing warrior, set out to answer these questions and more.
When I get nervous, I fart. Seriously. My husband thinks it’s absolutely hilarious (until he’s standing downwind of me). It makes job interviews, presentations, and flying a tad tricky. And I’m not the only one, speaking to friends they all have various stories of the mind-gut connection. Getting a dodgy belly the day before an important event, feeling sick giving a speech at your best mates wedding, and one friend even admitted to constipation when her mother-in-law comes to stay!
Is there a real connection between our digestive system & our minds?
Let’s start with butterflies, not the winged little beasties but the ‘fluttery’, almost ticklish feeling we get in our midriffs when we’re nervous or anxious. This feeling is caused by a reduction in the blood flow to the stomach. Say what!? Why does this happen?
Thousands of years ago, before we humans had to be ready to order a take-away, settle down to watch Netflix, or track our Uber on the app, we had to be prepared to run from predators. Think lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). Given the typically narrow window between a lion deciding to order a human-shish-kebab and you ending up in the jaws of said lion, a surge in heart rate and your muscles tensing might have meant a swift escape.
When the brain detects a threat to our survival, it raises the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol and diverts blood from the places where it’s not needed, like the stomach, and into the muscles . Think about it, if we’re about to be mauled by a hungry bear the body doesn’t need to be focused on digesting last night’s curry.
You might think it’s unfortunate that the body doesn’t know the difference between facing down a herd of wildebeest, or your mother-in-law coming to stay (maybe there isn’t a difference?) but it’s a survival mechanism that’s here to stay. Our bodies react in the same way our ancestors did, the only difference is what stresses us out today is largely changed.
What about mental health and the gut? Is there a connection there?
I’m glad you asked. There is. I spoke to Martina Ratto, boffin and Cognitive Scientist, and she explained that the gut and brain regularly slide into each other’s direct messages (maybe they like exchanging poo emojis, sorry I couldn’t resist) and that this ‘group chat’ is called the brain-gut axis. Researchers are finding evidence that bacteria in our gastrointestinal system send signals to our central nervous system that trigger mood changes . And vice versa, chronic stress can actually change which bacteria live in the gut . That means stomach problems can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression.
Dr Jay Pasricha, Director of Neurogastroenterology says:
“These new findings may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and bowel problems develop depression and anxiety. For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around.”
That’s important because up to 30 to 40% of us have bowel problems at some point and they could be impacting on our mental wellbeing. Gastroenterologists might prescribe antidepressants for IBS, for example - not because they think the problem is mental illness, but because these medications can calm digestive symptoms by acting on nerve cells in the gut. Our two brains ‘talk’ to each other, so therapies that help one may well help the other. Dr Pasricha says:
“In a way, gastroenterologists are like counsellors looking for ways to soothe the second brain.”
How can we encourage a happy and healthy mind-gut balance?
Chill our beans. Meaning stress less. Easier said than done, right? When the dreaded nausea kicks in or the butterflies are having a party in our stomach take some deeeeep breaths. Breathing deeply sends signals to our nervous system that we’re safe. Schedule time to do things that help you de-stress – playing with the kids, watching a romcom, partaking in a spot of meditation, whatever works for you. Personally, I’d recommend giving laughing yoga a go!
Nurture the good bacteria. We all know we should be eating less processed foods, less sugars and more veg (if you didn’t know this, where have you been?) but we can also be caring for the 100 trillion bacteria that reside happily in our guts. Have a read of our blogs ‘Beat the bloat!’ and ’Fiber, poo, and living longer’ for more info.
Move more. This is an important one for me. If I don’t get out and about and move my body then my, ahem, plumbing gets backed up. Whether you’re walking, dancing, biking or mowing the lawn, exercise increases blood flow and supports our good gut bacteria for smoother digestion. It also releases endorphins that serve as mood boosters. Double win!
Stay hydrated. Alas, alcohol doesn’t count, not even the kind that claims to contain fruit. Sorry! Drink plenty of water. Daily, we lose about 1.5 litres of fluid when we pee, about 200ml in our poo and about 500ml when we sweat. This may sound gross but check the colour of your wee as it’s a great indicator of hydration levels. There’s a lovely chart here.
And my last tip, which is a bit of a curveball:
Cuddle a dog. Research shows that petting a canine companion significantly reduces anxiety in people attending an emergency room for treatment . And it didn’t seem to matter if the dog belonged to them (so tap up your neighbours). Albeit a fairly small study, it’s worth giving it a go (unless you're allergic). I’m going to use this research to request we get an office dog! Wish me luck.
Mind-body connections: Our digestive system is closely linked to our thoughts and emotions. Given this strong mind-gut connection, it should come as no surprise that looking after our mental wellbeing has a positive effect on our tummies and vice versa. Want to read more about digestive health and wellbeing? Check out ‘Health Eating Habits’ and ‘How can we stress out less?’
1. Stress and the gut (2017). UNC School of Medicine.
2. Decoding the Enteric Nervous System: The Beginning of Our Understanding of Enteric Neuromuscular Disorders (2021). John Hopkins University.
3. Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome (2017). Neurobiology of stress.
4. Controlled clinical trial of canine therapy versus usual care to reduce patient anxiety in the emergency department (2019). PLoS One.