The Gut Brain Axis

Dr. Libby Weaver DR. LIBBY WEAVER

If you think about it, we’ve always intuitively known that our brain and our gut were somehow connected – you only have to think about the butterflies you experience when you’re nervous or excited or the sudden dash to the bathroom that you might need to make before a big exam or a performance you’re feeling anxious about. Not to mention the common phrase “go with your gut” when it comes to decision-making. But are gut feelings actually real?

Well, science tells us that our brain, our gut, and our gut microbiome (the community of gut bugs living in our intestine) communicate with each other via the ‘microbiota-gut-brain axis’. This connection allows bi-directional communication, which means your gut talks to your brain and your brain talks to your gut. This all happens through their own biochemical language – messages sent via hormones, nerves and other signalling molecules. Doesn’t it just blow your mind how amazing our bodies are?

Considering this strong connection between our gut and our brain, it’s no wonder we literally feel some of our emotions in our gut, and it explains why those with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) may notice that their symptoms worsen when they’re stressed.

Yet, many of us have become disconnected from the impact that stress and our emotions can have on our physical gut symptoms. When we experience these symptoms, we tend to consider what we are eating but not necessarily how we are eating – and both are important. In fact, our emotional state can radically impact on how we digest our food. For example, eating while we’re upset or rushing around can potentially lead to indigestion and/or bloating, as digestive processes are not prioritised when the body is churning out stress hormones.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to feel happy and content when we’re experiencing digestive problems and challenges with our gut health. Around 90% of the serotonin in our body (the substance that acts as a neurotransmitter in our brain to help us feel happy, calm and content) is made in the gut, which means that if gut health is compromised, serotonin production may also potentially be altered.

The good news is, the power to change our gut health is entirely in our hands. Our gut microbiome (the ecosystem of bacteria in our gut) changes according to what we eat. It really is quite remarkable that the bacteria in our gut can change within a few days as a result of our food choices. What we eat is that powerful!

Our gut bugs love lots of plant foods. Some of the fibres naturally present in plants act as food for our gut bacteria and when the bacteria ferment the fibre, they produce short-chain fatty acids and these nourish the cells that line our gut. However, it is important to remember that the foods that are nourishing for one person may not be nourishing for another. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who have continued to eat certain foods they have been told are “healthy”, despite their body sending them clear messages (often in the form of gut symptoms!) that these foods aren’t right for them.

When we begin to pay more attention to how we feel after we eat, we can learn how to identify our body’s messages and improve our instincts around what’s right for us and what’s not. This includes what we eat and how to take better care of ourselves, but also extends beyond that to having the clarity of mind to make important decisions and the ability to get through our daily tasks without feeling overwhelmed.

So, begin to pay more attention to how you’re left feeling after each meal. It can help to jot down what you’re eating and any symptoms you experience for a couple of weeks to help you identify any common denominators that might better serve to be avoided for a trial period of time*.

* Long-term exclusions are best guided and supported by an experienced nutrition professional to ensure how you eat each day is nutritionally complete.