The Gut-Brain Connection: The relationship to emotions and managing stress

Introduction

The gut and the brain: two separate entities yet intimately connected. The gut is also referred to as the “second brain”. It is an organ system which comprises of the mouth, esophagus, stomach and intestines. It plays a major role, not only in our digestive health, but in the wellness of the entire body. The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It produces our every thought, action, memory, feeling and experience of the world.

Researchers have discovered that the gut and brain are closely connected; and that this relationship serves an important function not only in managing emotions and stress but also aiding digestion. Emotions are felt in the gut. Feelings such sadness, anger, nervousness, fear and joy can be felt in the gut. The term “feeling sick to the stomach” describes a situation which involves mental or emotional anguish which can produce stress in the mind and the body. We can also feel excitement in our gut which can be described as “butterflies” in our stomach.

An anxious mind can create stress in the body causing upset or disharmony in the gut. Similarly, problems in the gut can cause an imbalance in the mind. These two entities are continually in communication with each other. So the brain and gut are directly linked. It is important to address not just the physical body when identifying the cause of gut upset, but also to look at the role of stress and emotions.

Effects of Stress and Emotions on the Gut

Emotions such as fear, sadness, stress and anger can all affect our gut. The word emotion literally means energy in motion when translated from Latin. Emotion is the experience of energy moving through the body and these energy currents can increase or decrease the movements of the gut and the contents within it; making the digestive system susceptible to bloating and other types of pain.

Chronic stress is often a build-up of energy that gets stuck or lodged in the body. This can cause tightness, tension and contraction which can affect our digestion and emotional health. This build-up can be released through a process of rest, relaxation, counselling or psychotherapy and in some cases the support of medication. So, both entities need to be working effectively to achieve optimum health and homeostasis.

Emotional Body: The Role of the Gut in Intuition and Internal Body-Sensing

Our body is constantly giving us a reliable stream of information in the form of sensations, if we can access its wisdom. We live in a world that is constantly “thinking” and “doing” so we are less likely to tap into our “feeling” senses because of our conditioning and habits. Understanding the subtle signals, we receive from our bodily sensations can access a powerful reservoir of knowledge.

The gut also plays an important function in our internal body-sensing and intuition. We have often heard of the expression to “trust your gut” and this speaks to the subtle signals we get from our gut to guide us or to avert danger. Another function of the gut is like an internal compass to support us with intuitive decision-making while also engaging the mind.

A healthy gut and digestive system can affect energy levels, motivation, clarity of thought and intuitive decision making. A brain or mind that has adequate stimulation, nutrients and rest can support improved gut functioning.  When both are healthy, our intuition or “feeling body” is more alert.

Role of Vagus Nerve

At the centre of this dialogue between the brain and gut is the vagus nerve, which conveys messages in both directions. The vagus nerve is the major neural connection between gut and brain.  It connects the brain to the gut and other vital organs.

Signals are sent via the nerve into the brain and the brain transmits signals to the peripheral body and gut. Gut instincts and visceral sensations are transported up to your brain via the vagus nerve. It is the translator from the gut to the brain.

When we are stressed, we are in “fight or flight mode” and the body is under strain. The vagus nerve impacts the parasympathetic nervous system which manages our “rest and digest” response. Stimulation of the vagus nerve increases the vagal “tone”, meaning your body can relax faster after stress reducing cortisol levels. Studies have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve could help people suffering from PTSD and in some cases depression.

Trauma: Effect on Nervous System and Gut

A study conducted by a Columbia University has discovered that traumatic childhood experiences can cause stomach or gut problems which may manifest in adulthood as mental or emotional issues. As a psychotherapist, I often see clients who feel grief, anger, sadness and anxiety in the gut or stomach. For us to heal, these emotions need to be felt slowly with mindful awareness so that they can move through us and pass.

Emotions that arise are full of information and it is our body’s way of communicating to us when something is wrong or “off” or when something is right.  There is wisdom in the body. If there are old emotions which have previously been suppressed, they can become trapped or lodged in the body until they are ready to be released.

If we experienced traumatic experiences as a child or adult, we may have needed to dissociate or suppress our emotions in order to survive. Current experiences may trigger these emotions which may need to be worked through and released in order to heal. Challenging situations can also give rise to difficult emotions which can be overwhelming but can be helped with the appropriate counselling or psychotherapy treatment or in some cases, medication.

Some symptoms of stress which may manifest in the gut include stomach cramps, diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and stomach ulcers. These conditions can not only have a physiological impact but can also be a source of anxiety and depression as they affect our eating and drinking habits and therefore may affect our social life. Family and work life can be affected as a result as a consequence of stress as we are less able to function and manage our daily lives.

Tips to Manage Stress and When to Seek Help:

1 .Breathing: Most of us are unaware of how we breathe unless we bring our awareness to it. Connecting to your breath consciously can relax the mind and the nervous system. Whether it means walking away from your desk in work, going for a walk at lunchtime, pausing in your day to stop and breathe. Closing the eyes for 5 minutes and allowing the body to settle and the breath to calm can be really simple yet highly effective tool.

2. Boundaries: Know your limitations and don’t take on extra responsibilities. A suggestion before responding to something is to take 24 hours to think about it before reaching your decision. This can give you space to think and see how something feels before committing.

3. Connecting with nature: Taking a short walk in the park or beach can be highly rejuvenating. Maybe introducing more plants into your home to connect to nature.

4. Exercise: Physical activity can be a great stress reliever. Moving the body can get the heart pumping and oxygenate the blood.  It also helps to clear the mind and can be a great way to shift your focus and allow the energy to move. The results can be increased energy and mental clarity; even 15 minutes of movement such as walking can be highly beneficial.

5. Yoga: Yoga is an excellent way to calm the mind and body. Stretching and opening the body can relieve tension and support with stress reduction.
Meditation: Quietening the mind even for 5 minutes can be a fantastic way to reset. Sitting in silence and bringing focus to your breath can give your mind a chance to stop and reboot.
In the same way, we recharge our phones; we need to do the same to the mind and body.

6. Diet: Ensure that you are eating regularly and proper meals with adequate nutrients to support your digestive health and wellness. Certain foods are known to irritate the stomach. If your stomach or gut symptoms are persistent, consult your GP.

7. Talk to a trusted friend, family member: Talking about a problem or stressful situation with someone you trust can be extremely effective, as you get to share your concern(s) and have a listening ear.

8. Counselling or Psychotherapy: Seek out professional support if your problem is interfering with your life and daily functioning.

As every individual is unique, sometimes it is necessary to look at the physiological and psychological aspects to reduce symptoms to restore a healthy gut and mind.

Conclusion

The gut-brain connection explains why integrative treatments can help relieve digestive problems. The two entities ‘talk’ to each other, so treatments or therapies that help one may help the other. Our gut is like our “second brain” full of nerves which send signals and messages to the brain. This is our intuition. When we combine the logic of the mind and our intuition, we are in balance: similar to the concept of yin and yang. When we have too much yang energy, our systems are overworked and stressed. With too much yin, we can become demotivated and depressed.

Our brain is responsible for thinking, processing and logic which also transmit information to the gut via the vagus nerve. Overexertion in the brain can cause stress as we have excessive information to process which has a direct effect on the gut and the body. Both the gut and the brain although separate entities, are interdependent systems which are in continuous communication with each other. To achieve and maintain a healthy gut and mind, both need to function effectively and in collaboration with each other; not separately or in isolation.

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