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Tired, Bloated and Hangry: a quick guide to gut & brain health

Do you ever get “hangry” or have diarrhea before an important meeting? Do you feel emotional or irritable after some meals and not others? Do you feel bloated all the time, and also have trouble with sleep, mood, libido, and stress? If you are nodding your head yes, it’s time to pay closer attention to your brain and gut connection.

The communication that occurs between the brain and the gut is called the gut-brain axis (GBA). It is bidirectional, meaning the gut can influence functions and pathways in the brain and vice versa. This communication, controlled largely via the vagus nerve, is the reason why the gut is sometimes referred to as the second brain. In fact, there is an entire nervous system in the gut called the enteric nervous system. It is comprised of several important hormones and neurotransmitters that are often associated with the brain, but are indeed produced in the GI tract. They include serotonin, the antidepressant hormone; GABA, the anti-anxiety hormone; Melatonin, the sleep hormone; cortisol, a stress hormone; and histamine, a compound responsible for allergic reactions. It’s fair to say that we all want to feel happy, calm, rested, and not congested—and these good feelings are cultivated from within your gut.

Big Meeting Belly So what is actually going on when you have the urge to use the restroom right before a big meeting? When you’re stressed or anxious, the brain signals your adrenal glands to release cortisol, which then causes an increase in blood flow to the periphery—or away from your gut. This happens because, evolutionarily, when we encountered a predator, our legs needed the adrenaline and extra blood flow to run. With an immediate threat, digestion is no longer important for survival, so the body turns that system off in the moment. When the predator is no longer present, the body returns to its normal state of resting and digesting.

Today, in a world with an entirely new set of stressors, our bodies don’t know the difference between a bear (an actual predator threat) and a humiliating meeting with the boss (a perceived threat). The result is indigestion, diarrhea, cramping, bloating, and gas.

While we can’t just tell our primal brains to turn off during these moments, we can practice things like mindful meditation, and simple breathing exercises to get us through and calm these tense moments.

Distracted Digestion

Another situational digestive issue has to do with distraction. With our overly busy lives, we often don’t take time to eat without distraction. When was the last time that all you did was sit and eat your whole meal without looking at your phone, talking care of a child, or making a to-do list? Many of us eat on the go, or while our brain is running 100 miles a minute in front of a computer, the TV. Do you notice that your belly feels uncomfortable after the meals you spent in front of the news, or during an important meeting?

The fact is, our bodies are meant to rest and digest during and after eating, so do your gut and brain favor, and just chill out and take the time your body needs during and after meals.

Bedroom Blues

When the gut-brain axis is compromised, both of the systems are impacted. So, if your gut is not functioning optimally, not only will you feel bloated and have abdominal pain, but your brain regulation pertaining to sleep, mood, libido and stress levels will also be adversely affected. In addition, your ability to fight off infections is weakened, pushing your bodies toward faster aging! Digestive issues such as SIBO, H.Pylori, ulcers, candidiasis, chronic viral infections, IBD (Crohns and ulcerative colitis), IBS, celiac disease, obesity, maldigestion, reflux, peptic ulcers (PUD), food allergies are all linked to a compromised gut-brain connection.

Lastly, anxiety, autism, and demyelinating diseases such as Guillain Barre or MS, Alzheimers, Parkinsons, and other behavior and psychiatric diseases have been shown to be affected by an altered gut-brain connection.

Say Goodbye to Pepto-Bismol

If you’re ready to stop masking your symptoms with cycles of over the counter drugs, a naturopath doctor can help you find the root cause of your symptoms and utilize a holistic, individualized and comprehensive approach to healing your gut and brain once and for all.

To start, I work with patients on establishing the fundamentals of health - nourishing food, exercise and movement, uninterrupted sleep, loving relationships, and reduced stress. I may also use high dose probiotics, digestive enzymes, healing herbs, and amino acids such as l-glutamine to aid in the healing of the gut lining.