Are you someone that suffers from stomach troubles? While it's easy to blame it on a poor diet or dodgy digestive system, have you considered that your pain may have nothing to do with your stomach at all?
Believe it or not, many common stomach complaints could be a product of our mental health and feelings. For example, have you ever felt 'sick to the stomach' after a traumatic event or had a 'gut-wrenching' experience? There's a reason we use these expressions, and it all comes down to the Brain-Gut connection.
Yes, it's true - our emotions are intimately connected to our gut. Dubbed the 'second brain,' the gut is an organ system that comprises the mouth, oesophagus, stomach and intestines. It plays a vital role in digestive health and also whole-body health. Our brain speaks to our gut. It triggers various symptoms when we feel certain emotions like anxiety, anger, stress, or even joy. For example, it's why you might feel nauseous when you're nervous about something - perhaps giving a presentation at work. Or why you might feel cramps and intestinal pain when you're stressed out.
What's interesting is that communication works both ways. The gut also sends signals to the brain when something is wrong. It's why people who suffer from conditions such as IBS and chronic GI diseases may also experience anxiety and depression.
The communication system between your gut and brain is called the gut-brain axis. And at the centre of it is the vagus nerve. This nerve conveys and translates messages between the two and connects both the brain and gut to other vital organs in the body. In animal studies, stress has been found to inhibit signals sent through the vagus nerve, resulting in gastrointestinal problems.
The gut and brain are also connected chemically through neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are produced in the brain to control our feelings and emotions. Additionally, our gut cells and the microbes found there also make them. Interestingly, studies in mice have found that certain probiotics can increase the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is known to reduce anxiety and symptoms of depression.
What's more, in the early 20th Century, George Porter Phillips observed patients suffering from melancholia at the Bethlehem Royal Hospital. He noticed they had subsequent symptoms of constipation and other signs of a "general clogging of the metabolic processes", including brittle nails, lustreless hair and a sallow complexion.
While some would assume they were physical symptoms of depression, Phillips suggested it could be the other way round. He believed the problems in the gut were causing an imbalance in the brain.
To find out, he fed the patients a meat-free diet and offered a fermented milk drink known as kefir. This drink contains lactobacillus bacteria - a friendly microbe known to ease digestion.
Out of 18 patients, he cured 11 altogether, and 2 others showed significant improvements. Philips' findings were some of the earliest evidence that gut bacteria can directly influence mental well-being.
Just because psychological factors might cause your GI problems or symptoms, it doesn't mean they're 'all in your head.' It's not as simple as saying, 'try not to feel anxious, and the pain will go away.' The pain you are experiencing is real, as stress, depression, and other psychological factors can affect movement and contractions of the GI tract. What's more, people with functional GI disorders might perceive pain more acutely than others because their brains are more responsive to pain signals from the gut.
GI conditions caused by stress and poor mental health might improve with therapy. Psychological therapy can help get to the root of the problem, i.e. the factors causing emotional distress, and help you identify what you can do to manage and improve your symptoms. By alleviating stress and managing depression, you might find that you relieve digestive problems, too, as the brain and gut talk to each other.
Additionally, you might find that health supplements for stress and depression or improving gut health help relieve your symptoms. Below we have shared some of the best Mountainlife supplements for improving mental and gut health. We recommend discussing taking health supplements with your GP beforehand, particularly if you have pre-existing medical conditions.
Rhodiola Rosea is a herb that grows in cold mountainous Europe and Asia. People in Russia and Scandinavian countries have been using Rhodiola for centuries as herbal medicine and a tonic to treat anxiety, fatigue and depression.
The plant's root is known for its natural adaptogenic qualities, which help the human body adapt to stress. For example, a study of 101 people with life and work-related stress found that taking Rhodiola Rosea extract significantly improved fatigue, exhaustion, and anxiety symptoms after just 3 days.
Rhodiola Rosea also contains Rosavin, a cinnamyl alcohol glycoside compound thought to alleviate anxiety and depression.
Rhodiola might help to balance neurotransmitters in the brain. In one 6-week study, Rhodiola significantly reduced feelings of depression and improved the emotional stability of participants with mild-to-moderate depression.
Read our blog: Rhodiola Rosea for stress relief to find out more.
Other Mountainlife supplements with stress-relief benefits include:
Our wild harvested fruit powders, including Blueberry Powder, Cranberry Powder and Dragonfruit Powder, are all known to offer gut health benefits.
A single cup of blueberries contains almost 4g of dietary fibre, which helps control blood sugar levels, prevent constipation, and even reduce IBS symptoms. Additionally, it helps support the healthy microbiome in the gut, improving our health overall.
Cranberries can also benefit the good bacteria in the gut, linked with improved immunity, digestive health, and, as we've revealed in this blog post, mood. The fibre in our freeze-dried Wild Cranberry Powder can also aid digestion and prevent constipation.
Like blueberries and cranberries, dragonfruit is also a great source of fibre. What's more, it contains prebiotics that promotes the growth of healthy bacteria like lactic acid and bifidobacteria in the gut. Prebiotics also help reduce the risk of digestive tract infections and unwanted symptoms like diarrhoea.
We've merely touched on how the gut and brain communicate and influence each other. But what we will say is that there is great value to be found in recognising and understanding the signals we receive from our bodies.
You've heard the saying 'trust your gut.' This is because the gut communicates with the brain and helps us make wiser decisions and avoid danger. In addition, it engages the mind to support decision making. Therefore, ensuring your gut and the digestive system remains healthy is paramount to optimal brain function, benefiting your alertness, energy levels and clarity of mind.
Moreover, recognising that GI pain and problems could be directly tied to your feelings can help you get the support you need. It may even prevent you from taking unnecessary medications to relieve symptoms.
Learnt something new? Check out our other blog posts to discover the many other health and wellness topics we've covered.
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