It really isn’t that surprising when you think about it! Have you ever felt nauseous from feelings of stress, fear or being overwhelmed? Or perhaps your bowel movements changed before a big event, presentation or exam.
Then there is the flip side of things. Having gastrointestinal issues is no fun – trust me I know – and it can really take toll on your mental health. Studies have been looking at mental health issues in individuals with gastrointestinal issues. Some people who actually suffer from IBS symptoms may actually be experiencing them from stress. Pretty interesting stuff if you ask me!
So you may know that we have neurotransmitters that act like little communication devices but did you know that the microbiome also has the ability to communicate with the brain?! What do you think it’s going to say if things are not all roses down there?
And we can’t forget about our vagus nerve!
- It starts in the brain
- It goes down the neck to heart, lungs, digestive organs to the uterus
- It’s the longest cranial nerve
- Signals go from brain to body and vice versa via the vagus nerve
Vagus Nerve and Digestion
As you can see the vagus nerve is connected to our digestive system so you can imagine that the health of one may impact the health of the other.
If the health of the vagus nerve is not optimal, it may lead to things such as irritable bowel syndrome, irritable bowel disease and other digestive imbalances. This is because the vagus nerve is what communicates to our stomachs to let it know that it’s time to release digestive juices to help break down food.
This can lead to heartburn, sluggish digestion, and bacterial overgrowth. Yikes!
It’s not just your digestion system that is impacted!
Although the focus of this blog is digestive health, I want to point out that your hormones, energy levels, nutrient absorption, motor skills and overall inflammation may be impacted!
Why is My Vagus Nerve Not Working Optimally?
Stress. Stress. Stress. Stress seems to be plaguing our society. We are constantly trying to meet deadlines, are commuting long distances to work, balancing family life, and always on our electronic devices. Stress is completely normal and we are all prone to having good and bad days but its when stress starts to overcome your life and negatively impact your overall health, thats when it is a problem!
- We have our parasympathetic nervous system (think calm and chill)
- Then we have our sympathetic nervous system (think stress or fight or flight)
- Historically we would go into this fight or flight state when running from an actual danger like a lion, bear, etc.
- Today, our body has the same stress response to things like getting stuck in traffic, reading an annoying email, etc.
- The unfortunate part is that many of us are chronically stressed. We are rushing to get ready into the morning to then get stuck in traffic, to then work and eventually go back home in traffic, and “relax” by scrolling through social media. You get the picture…
- Our vagus nerve is not sending and receiving signals properly to do its job and during fight-or-flight our blood gets rushed to our extremities to fight off this non-existent lion instead of going to our digestive system to help us digest and assimilate nutrients. This also creates issues in the gut especially if we are always eating when rushed and/or stressed.
Am I really stressed?
If you’re not sure whether or not you’re too stressed then some of the following symptoms may be a red flag: grinding teeth, headaches, sleeplessness and restlessness, depression, anxiety, poor concentration and procrastination, short temper and many more!
What do I do to support my vagus nerve?
- vagus nerve stimulation
- manage stress (see more tips below)
- practice deep breathing
- move your body
- support your gut health
- eat anti-inflammatory foods
- eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like walnuts, hemp seeds and fatty fish
What do you do about stress? Of course it would be easy to say “be less stressed” but we all know its not that easy.
Find ways to make life more efficient so you aren’t worrying about every little thing.
- Streamline mundane tasks like grocery shopping by ordering online or doing click and pick, hire someone to thoroughly clean your house once a month (or more depending on your budget), use a menu planning service, hire a dog walker…you get the idea.
- When it comes to the big stuff like work and school, try to set priorities, only write down what you can realistically accomplish in a day, ask for help if you need it and try to leave your work at work.
- There are also many other things you can do to reduce stress such as exercising, spending more time outside, going out with friends and family, resting, reading, eating healthy, and disconnecting.
Nutrition and the Mind-Gut Connection
Now isolating which came first – mental health issues or digestive issues – is a good step. For example is my anxiety causing digestive issues or are my digestive issues causing anxiety – and you may not know.
Of course reducing stress and taking care of your physical and mental health is extremely important but nutrition can play a role in this.
- To support the gut, consider taking a probiotic and/or eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, tamari, tempeh and kombucha. Eating probiotic rich foods can reduce bad bacteria which supports the immune system and helps lower our stress response by working with stress hormones like cortisol.
- Next remove processed foods and refined sugars from your diet. This is good for both mental and physical wellbeing. Going off of gluten may also be helpful for some individuals who may be intolerant.
- Soak and sprout. Soaking and sprouts nuts, seeds and grains makes them easier to digest and reduces instances of bloat and gas – bonus!
- Eat foods that contain plenty of B vitamins and serotonin like nuts and mushrooms
- If you think you have an underactive stomach try having lemon water or a digestive enzyme before a meal to help break down food better.
- Take a few deep breaths before eating.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Eat fiber.
Need support? Check out the Digital Wellness Club and email firstname.lastname@example.org to book a free discovery call!
More here on how to calm an anxious stomach, and more about the brain-gut connection from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America: