Your brain and gut are in constant communication, connected by an information highway known as the vagus nerve. Given that your entire body relies on your brain for its basic operating instructions, you might be shocked to learn that far more communication reaches the brain from the gut than the other way around!

Often called the ‘feel good hormone,’ serotonin acts as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter in our body. Low mood, depression, anxiety and even autism are associated with altered serotonin levels. For all of its importance to mental well being, you might expect that the brain is where we find most of the body’s serotonin, but it’s not. In fact, the gut contains the vast majority of the serotonin in our body (about 95%) AND is the home of our immune system.

The health of our brain and our digestive tract are intertwined; what goes on in one greatly affects the function of the other. Our thoughts can have a significant impact on our digestive function: a case of nerves can lead to butterflies in the stomach, and significant daily stress can trigger flares of IBS, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. And yet, our mental well being is similarly dictated by our digestive well being. Those with irritable bowel syndrome tend to have far higher rates of mental illness.

Natural Remedies

  • Exercise: Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins — chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers — and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress. Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
  • Meditation: Mindfulness meditation strengthens a person’s cognitive ability to regulate emotions and thoughts. Brain imaging found that meditation-related anxiety relief was associated with activation of the areas of the brain that are involved with executive function and the control of worrying. Meditation-related activation of these areas was directly linked to anxiety relief.
    • Check out these meditation apps: Headspace, The Mindfulness App, Calm
  • Relaxation Exercises: No one can avoid all stress, but you can counteract its detrimental effects by learning how to produce the relaxation response, a state of deep rest that is the polar opposite of the stress response. The relaxation response puts the brakes on stress and brings your body and mind back into a state of equilibrium.
    • Deep breathing: The key to deep breathing is to breathe deeply from the abdomen, getting as much fresh air as possible in your lungs. When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath, and anxious you feel.
      • Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
      • Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
      • Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
      • Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.
    • Progressive muscle relaxation: a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, it gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of the body.
      • Loosen clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
      • Take a few minutes to breathe in and out in slow, deep breaths.
      • When you’re ready, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
      • Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
      • Relax your foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and how your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
      • Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
      • Shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
      • Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the different muscle groups.
      • It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.
    • Writing: journaling or other forms of writing can help people cope better with anxiety. This can be a thoughtful, in depth experience, or you can write down whatever comes to mind as quickly as you can. Your writing does not need to be legible, just as long as you are getting out all of the thoughts that come to mind.
    • Time Management: Some people feel anxious if they have too many commitments at once. Having a plan in place for the next necessary action can help to keep this anxiety at bay. Effective time management strategies can help people to focus on one task at a time. Book-based planners and online calendars can help, as can resisting the urge to multitask.
    • Aromatherapy: Smelling soothing plant oils can help to ease stress and anxiety. Certain scents work better for some people than others, so consider experimenting with various options. Try lavender, chamomile, rose, orange, sandalwood, ylang-ylang.

 

Foods to Focus on

Certain foods may help lower the severity of symptoms, mostly due to their gut & brain-boosting properties.

  • Salmon: EPA and DHA may help regulate the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which can have calming and relaxing properties. Additionally, studies show these fatty acids can reduce inflammation and prevent brain cell dysfunction that leads to the development of difficulties like anxiety and depression.
  • Avocado: rich in stress-relieving B vitamins and heart-healthy fat that may help to lessen anxiety.
  • Chamomile: contains high amounts of antioxidants proven to reduce inflammation, which might decrease the risk of anxiety & depression.
  • Turmeric: a spice that contains curcumin, a compound studied for its role in promoting brain health and preventing anxiety disorders. Curcumin also has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to prevent damage to brain cells.
  • Dark Chocolate: flavanols (antioxidants in dark chocolate) improve blood flow to the brain and promote its ability to adapt to stressful situations.
  • Probiotics: probiotics promote mental health and brain function by inhibiting free radicals and neurotoxins, which can damage nerve tissue in the brain which can lead to anxiety & depression. Incorporate probiotic-rich foods like full fat yogurt, miso, kimchi and kombucha into your diet.