The connection between the gut and brain is so strong that stress can impact our digestion, causing IBS-like symptoms such as gas and bloating when we feel under pressure. However, exciting new research is exploring how a healthy gut and flourishing microbiome can work the opposite way to help make you feel less stressed. I’m all about giving the body the nutrients and support it needs to find balance and ease. Today I’m diving deep into the interconnection between the gut and the microbiome, and how supporting them both can help you feel calm, joyous, and relaxed!
The Gut-Brain Connection: Introducing The Vagus Nerve
Before getting into how to care for your microbiome and support a healthy gut, I want to talk about a central player in the gut-brain axis: the vagus nerve. This nerve is a major focus when it comes to stress and gut health because it connects our brain and digestive system.
Scientists aren't entirely sure how this nerve works, but what they do know is that it's a regulator of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is in charge of initiating the body’s "rest and digest" response thanks to its ability to slow our pulse and lower our blood pressure. When we’re stressed we leave the peaceful rest and digest state and activate the body’s sympathetic nervous system, or “fight or flight” mode, releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause all those symptoms of stress you’re likely familiar with: shallow breathing, a racing heart, and maybe even butterflies in your belly!
Getting out of “fight or flight” and “back to rest and digest” is crucial for managing our physical and emotional stress responses. Stimulating the vagus nerve releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that causes the heart rate to slow, making us feel more relaxed and calm. So the healthier our vagus nerve, the better able we’ll be to enter this relaxed state.
The Microbiome and Stress Response
While I’ve always been a big fan of the microbiome and its effect on digestive and immune health, there is now expanding evidence that it also plays a role in the early programming and later responsivity of the stress system in the body. When it comes to the health of the gut, both physical and social stress can impact the balance between beneficial and pathogenic bacteria in the microbiome, shifting the balance in favour of pathogenic bacteria, even if you’re just experiencing mild amounts of stress. This shift can lead to imbalances in the entire body from digestion to the stress response.
We already know that the vagus nerve can help trigger the relaxation response, but we now know that gut microorganisms can also activate the vagus nerve. That means if we have a healthy microbiome we can impact the health of our vagus nerve, which means a better overall stress response!
Having a healthy gut is also crucial for creating neurotransmitters that regulate mood and emotion such as serotonin and dopamine. While you may think that these chemicals are mostly made in the brain, up to 95% of your serotonin and about 50% of your dopamine are made in the digestive tract thanks to the help of the beneficial bacteria found in your microbiome.
In fact, animal studies found that mice which were fed strains of Lactobacillus bacteria had a lower physiological stress response and less production of one of the stress hormones, cortisol, after performing a forced swim test. While this study was done on animals, the results are promising when it comes to the power of the microbiome to help the body become more resilient and help you feel less stressed.
To diversify the healthy bacteria found in your gut, eating fermented foods is a great way to start, but sometimes investing in a high quality, extra-strength probiotic, especially if you’re under a lot of stress or you’re having digestive issues, is the best way to go.
If you’re struggling with stress and the digestive issues that often come along with it, then Genuine Health’s Mood Probiotic is a great addition to your natural medicine cabinet. It contains 50 billion CFUs made up of 15 balanced strains to promote and streamline both gut & emotional health. In particular, it contains a strain called L. salivarius that improves the body’s reaction to stressful stimuli. To round out this impressive blend, it also includes a melon juice extract called Extramel™ that is rich in superoxide dismutase (SOD), one of the body’s most powerful antioxidants! In people with chronic stress, anxiety, or depressive symptoms, SOD is low, possibly due to increased demand in the body. A very small amount of Extramel™ has been shown to improve mental outlook and sleep quality in adults who are tired and stressed, but otherwise healthy!
Taking probiotics is the first step to cultivating a healthy microbiome and if you want to nourish those bacteria, incorporating prebiotic fibre and phytonutrients in your diet gives them the food they need to thrive. I love adding a scoop of Genuine Health’s Fermented Organic Gut Superfoods to my smoothies because it contains 21 organic plant-based superfoods designed to nourish the microbiome without causing any bloating.
While it’s impossible to control or eliminate all the stressors in your life, you can take control over the health of your gut and microbiome. In doing so, you can increase your body’s natural resilience and improve your stress response to bounce back sooner and set the stage for a calm and joyous life!
Joy McCarthy is the Founder of Joyous Health, a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and best-selling author. A trusted nutrition expert, Joy has been featured in hundreds of publications both online and in print; and is a regular health expert on TV. Through her innate drive to inspire others, Joy has created numerous online programs and eBooks under JOYOUS U and is a faculty member at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. Joy lives in Toronto with her husband Walker and their daughter Vienna.