The gut-brain connection has been gaining a lot of attention both in scientific literature and in mainstream media in the last number of years — and for good reason.
For people who experience digestive symptoms (IBS-type symptoms, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, etc.), and/or cognitive/mental concerns like anxiety, brain fog, fatigue, memory impairment, etc., the gut-brain connection could be a really important piece of the picture to look at.
The gut-brain connection impacts the nervous system, and the digestive system, but also has far-reaching effects on other systems like reproductive hormones, metabolism, etc.
In this article, we'll discuss what the brain-connection is, why it's important, and how to strengthen the connection between yours!
What is the Gut-Brain Connection?
Have you ever experienced "butterflies in your stomach"? A "gut feeling"? Maybe you experience digestive distress when you're in a stressful or anxiety-inducing situation (like public speaking)?
There's actually a scientific explanation for that! It's called the gut-brain connection (AKA the gut-brain axis).
Our gut is often referred to as the "second brain." Interestingly, both the gut and brain are formed from the same tissue in embryo. What really has people referring to the gut as the "second brain" is the fact that the gut has its own nervous system. It's called the enteric nervous system, and it's infiltrated throughout our digestive system.
It's this enteric nervous system in the gut, that is "connected" to the brain, via something called the "vagus nerve."
The significance of the gut-brain connection is such that they're in constant communication with each other and can therefore influence behavior in both systems.
If we experience certain behaviour in the brain, say stress or anxiety, messages can be sent to the gut via this connection that can impact the microbiome, motility, inflammation, and more.
Likewise, if there is an imbalance in the gut, say dysbiosis (an imbalance in the microbiome), or intestinal permeability (leaky gut), this can contribute to various cognitive and mental dysfunctions, like anxiety, depression, brain fog, fatigue, etc.
An Introduction to the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is the nerve that connects our brain to our gut — it's sort of like a 'superhighway' where information is able to be sent back and forth between the gut and the brain. It's the 10th cranial nerve and is part of our parasympathetic nervous system (also often referred to as our "rest and digest" nervous system).
A lack of "vagal tone" (meaning this nerve's ability to communicate between the gut and brain), can lead to dysfunction on both sides!
Let's dig into how we can support the gut-brain axis to function optimally, for both gut health, and cognitive/mental health, long term:
How to "Hack" your Gut-Brain Connection
Incorporate Vagal Toning Exercises into your Routine
Now that you have a better understanding of what the gut-brain connection is, as well as the vagus nerve, here are some exercises that are known to stimulate and "tone" or "strengthen" the vagus nerve:
1. Deep breathing.
Most people take 10-15 breaths per minute. The vagus nerve gets activated when you slow to ~6 breaths per minute. You can do this using the 4-7-8 breathing technique: inhale for 4 - hold for 7 - out for 8. You don't have to breathe like this all the time but 5-15 mins per day can be helpful to improve vagal tone.
2. Gargle vigorously (until your eyes tear up).
Gargling is a great practice for stimulating the vagus nerve. Ideally practice this 2-3x per day (when you brush your teeth is a good time to add this in). This activates muscles at the back of your throat connected to the vagus nerve.
3. Loud singing/chanting.
So, car karaoke can actually improve your digestion! Who knew. Likewise, you can sing in the shower (huge fan over here!) or hum/chant loudly. Think yoga class "OMMMMM" with regards to how to do this.
4. Use a tongue depressor (or your toothbrush) to gently press on the back of your tongue until you gag.
Do this until your eyes tear up, about 2-3x/day. Stacking this on to when you brush your teeth works for some.
Eating mindfully (such as eating in a calm relaxed state, without distractions), can promote a healthy gut-brain connection, as we're eating in our "rest-and-digest" state, versus our stressed, "fight or flight" mode. Eating in this state, where we feel relaxed and at ease, is where our body does its the best job digesting food.
As we're talking about the nervous system here, stress plays a major role in the function of the gut-brain axis! Stress can also have negative implications for vagal tone.
Supporting your nervous system through actively reducing stressors (like taking things off your plate, asking for help, getting support, etc.), and putting stress-management practices in place for when you do inevitable experience stress, is important.
Here are some of my favourite stress management practices you can explore:
breathwork (I personally like the 4x4 breath or 4-7-8 breath)
spending time unplugged, in nature
reading a good book
laying down with your legs up the wall (seriously, try it)
an epsom salt bath
a good workout
Look into Mind-Body Therapies
Certain therapies can be really helpful for strengthening the gut-brain connection. Somatic therapies, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), biofeedback, hypnotherapy, etc. can be really helpful in strengthening this relationship, toning the vagus nerve, and supporting our nervous system.
I also recommend checking out Nerva a hypnotherapy program specifically designed for IBS and with impressive research backing up efficacy. This gut-brain intervention has been shown to be as effective as following a complicated low FODMAP diet.
These therapies can be a great tool in addition to any of the above mentioned practices, or as something to look into if you've tried some of the practices mentioned above, and feel like you could use some addition support.
If you're struggling with any of the symptoms mentioned at the beginning of this article, whether more "obvious" digestive symptoms, or things like brain fog, anxiety, stress, memory issues, etc., it could be worth loving on your gut-brain connection.
To learn more about how to optimize your gut health (which we know is super important in this two-way communication between the gut and the brain!), then definitely grab my FREE Beginners Guide to Gut Healing.