Are your gut troubles really down to your lunch? Or are they a sign of something deeper?
Have you ever wondered why you get butterflies in your stomach before a big meeting at work? Or why your lower tummy cramps up every time you have to deal with a stressful situation? It's no small wonder that our guts are beginning to be referred to as a "second brain". Scientists are increasingly proving the undeniable link between our gut and our brains, and it was only a matter of time before mental health began to be discussed in relation to gut health. More and more, we're starting to see how gut health, and more specifically gut problems, are related to our mental state and the health of our brains.
Fight or flight
It's no secret that, when our brains get stressed or anxious, it triggers a stress response in the rest of our body. This is a defence mechanism - if you were attacked, for example, your 'fight or flight' instinct is a type of stress response that comes from your body trying to save you from danger. You get a burst of adrenaline, you sweat, you become charged to fight or to run. This would be great if you were actually getting attacked, but unfortunately, the nature of the brain means that we get these responses in any stressful situation, not just ones that present physical danger. That's why you might feel like you have to run out of the room before a big presentation, even though you're not in any actual danger.
So what's that got to do with the gut? Well, according to Psychology Today, when our body is under stress, it releases 'inflammatory cytokines' - little messengers that tell our immune system that it's under threat. Basically, our bodies react to stress as if it were an infection. And what does a body do when it gets infected? Inflammation goes up, certain functions shut down and the body goes into healing mode. Including the gut.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, psychological issues such as stress or depression can affect how our gastrointestinal tracts move, contract and can make inflammation in the gut worse. That's what causes those stomach cramps, or even nausea or diarrhoea - when your gastrointestinal tract isn't working properly, your ability to digest food is impaired.
If your gut is constantly giving you trouble, it can often be an indicator of a psychological issue. Sometimes, people don't even realise that they have a problem with stress or anxiety until their stomach gets loud enough. Caroline Foran, bestselling author of Owning It and The Confidence Kit, often talks about her gut issues and how long it took her to realise that they were stress related. Talking to IMAGE, she described it: "As a teenager, I was told I had IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), as I was having such difficulties with my stomach (which I now know was stress-related). I felt unwell almost every day... I still have a pretty sensitive stomach, as it’s where my stress will go".
So how can you improve your gut-to-brain health? Well, there are also a number of changes you can make to your diet that have been found to positively affect your microbiome and, in turn, your brain health. A healthy microbiome is a diverse one, so make sure to take in as wide a variety of food as possible, with plenty of fruit and veg. The Psychobiotic Revolution, penned by Professors at University College Cork Ted Dinan and John Cryan, advises that probiotics are the way to go for good gut/mental health - the probiotics Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium produce GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a tranquilising neurotransmitter that can reduce anxiety.
If you think your tummy is telling you something about your mental health, head to your GP and talk about the options of tackling the issue. There is always help available, and if you just need a chat, Samaritans are always free to call on 116 123.
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