Stress, Gut Health and Mental Health
Stress, Gut Health and Mental Health: A Mind-Body Understanding
Brooke Feinerman, PhD
Brooke’s training is in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University, and a PhD in somatic psychology from Pacifica. She has additional training and certificates from Harvard’s. Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine. https://brookefeinerman.com/
We have all experienced stress and its impact on our body: the gut wrenching feeling we have when we feel afraid or the butterflies in the stomach we get when we feel nervous. Our current world is filled with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty; our brains are trying desperately to adjust to and process many new things. Our stress level can have a dramatic influence on our mind and body, but did you know it can impact the health of your gut, which in turn has been shown in studies to influence one’s reported feelings of well-being. Let’s explore how stress can influence so many areas of our lives, and what we can do to help our overall wellness goals.
Stress and mental illness have long been recognized as some of the leading issues of our time, not just within the United States, but globally. The importance of understanding the factors that contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns now include investigating ways to increase the healthy bacteria in the gut that promote our overall health. Research has suggested that the microbiome balance of the gut relates strongly to not just our immunity, but also our psychological states of being. Recent research has begun to investigate the mind-body connection of stress, specifically how stress-related diseases and disorders are affected by gut-brain signaling and the role of gut microbiota in influencing our mental health. Additional research has also suggested that the stress response in the body can affect the immune system and neuroinflammatory processes that have been linked with psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, and depression. Additional research in this area has suggested the inflammation in the body caused by stress can impact the gut’s bacterial composition.
Stress in the short term is not necessarily all that bad for us because it can help with motivation, but if it is activated too often and for too long, the body enters into the commonly described fight-flight response. Chronic stress has been shown to have an impact on multiple organs of the body, including the adrenal glands, which release cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (i.e., adrenaline). Recent findings have linked the inflammation in the body caused by stress to also impact metabolic function, as well as the autonomic nervous system.
Research on how the brain is affected in a stress response shows that activation of the autonomic nervous system—a network of nerve systems that mostly works unconsciously to help regulate bodily functions such as heart rate, pupillary response, respiratory rate, among other internal organ functions—communicates with the enteric nervous system, or the intestinal nervous system. Early studies are pointing to how stress dramatically affects brain-gut communication, influencing the way the body is able to process food, creating changes in the gut microbiome (which is connected to immune health and other factors), and has shown an increase in the likelihood of experiencing anxiety and depression. You see, we often like to perceive ourselves as brains telling our bodies what to do (i.e., top-down processing), but the truth is that just as much information goes from the gut to the brain (i.e., bottom-up processing). There are many things that can contribute to our emotional and physical states of well-being and some of the neurochemicals most linked to mood and happiness are actually found in large part in the gut, like serotonin.
Serotonin, one of the neurochemicals associated with happiness levels, also has a strong connection to our gut health. Research is exploring the connection between gut health and levels of serotonin specifically in connection with one’s mood states. Recent studies have suggested that roughly 95% of serotonin in the body is actually found in the gut. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter or messenger that helps us formulate our interactions with the world, playing a significant role in sleep, learning, mood, appetite, and memory. Due to the many areas of functioning affected by serotonin, if one has a deficiency in this specific neurotransmitter it can negatively influence large areas of one’s life, causing various symptoms to arise, including: migraines, disrupted sleep, changes in weight, anxiety, OCD, depression, learning difficulties, and memory problems. Research suggests one is not able to get serotonin directly from food, however our nutrition can provide an amino acid called tryptophan, which is converted into serotonin. One small sample study found that women who took a serotonin tryptophan supplement reported a positive impact in their ability to process emotional material. Another study did a similar piece of research and reported when individuals were given a drink that did not contain tryptophan (in the form of an amino acid), the participants in the study self-reported a decrease in their mood, with signs of depression. However, when the same participants were given the drink again, but this time with tryptophan, they self-reported an increase in their mood. The studies being conducted in the area of nutrition, gut health, and mental health are still growing, but the connections between nutrition and mental health have been repeatedly supported.
Understanding the role of nutrition in relationship to our gut health and our mental wellness is about acknowledging that peak states of wellness require we see our body systems as interwoven, and always communicating, it isn’t just mental health or physical health, it is a both-and. When stress becomes overwhelming, the impact is felt by many areas of our bodies, not just our thought life. The goal is not to completely remove all kinds of stress because some are beneficial to us, enhancing our survival and necessary bodily processes. However, stress in harmful or chronic levels has a very dangerous impact on our wellness. The best way to create sustainable rhythms of wellness is to look at our overall lifestyle, working to include moderate physical activity, healthy nutrition, and stress reduction self-care measures, such as mindfulness practices. Additionally, it can be valuable to see the interaction of one’s nutrition and emotional health, as research helps us understand the need to address our wellness goals in a holistic manner. Cultivating healthy ways to manage stress is important because, in an ever-changing world, the one thing we can control is how we respond to the world around us. We can actively participate in how we care for our bodies. Training our perspective, attention, behaviors around making healthy choices, and responses to our external environment is one of the powerful ways we can start to do something positive for our minds and bodies right in this moment.
Guest Blog by Brooke Feinerman, PhD (www.brookefeinerman.com)
This article is intended for information purposes only, regardless of if the information is presented by a medical practitioner, physician or other professional. This article is provided to educate and inspire you on your personal journey, and is not a substitute for specialized medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, and should not be relied upon for specific medical care or in the place of specific medical guidance provided to you, by your care provider.
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Cover Photo Credit: https://www.addictioncampuses.com/
Blog Photo Credit: https://www.hopetocope.com/the-gut-brain-connection/