The Gut-Brain Connection and What You Can Do About It

We are in the middle of a mental illness epidemic. According to a report done by the CDC in June, 25% of people between the ages of 18-24 seriously have considered suicide since March. The percentage was 16% for adults 25-44. 31% of all age groups reported experiencing anxiety or depressive disorder, and over 40% experienced adverse or behavioral health symptoms. “The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%) (2).” See full report here.  

These numbers affect me on a very personal level.

I was diagnosed with PTSD at a young age, followed by depression, followed by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder by the time I was 18. I was on many different medications to attempt to treat my mental disconnect, and while some of the worked, some did more harm than good. I understand what it is like to experience the deepest of lows and the highest of highs. I know what it feels like to have a brain that you can’t control, a mind that races and thoughts that spin around and threaten any kind of peace or stability.

One thing I have learned, in my last decade of mental stability, is that our mental health symptoms are always responses to an imbalance in our internal or external environment. External triggers could be grief, stress, or lifestyle disruption. Internal triggers could be something like blood sugar issues, thyroid dysfunction, nutrient deficiencies… or poor gut health. Learning about the gut/brain connection and addressing key areas in my physical health made a huge impact on my mental health.

Now, there is no one size fits all. What worked for me is not going to work exactly the same in someone else. But I do believe everyone can benefit from improving gut health.

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In a perfect world, the lining of the intestine allows entry to nutrients from our food to be absorbed and go where they’re needed. This lining is supposed to prevent toxins, bacterial overgrowth, and food products from exiting the gut lining. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. When you have poor gut health, thanks to stress, toxins in the environment, overconsumption of sugar and processed foods, overuse of antibiotics or other common medications, and a whole lot of other triggers, the intestinal barrier becomes permeable, and endotoxins leak out. This is what the phrase “leaky gut” refers to. The inflammation that results leads to a myriad of health issues, but what is being studied a lot right now is the effect on the brain and mental health. Many psychiatrists are suggesting that poor gut health is at the root of many of our mental illnesses.

To further that point, it’s important to note that over 90% of our serotonin (the “happy” neurotransmitter) is produced in the gut, and serotonin cannot be produced without the assistance of amino acids. So if what we eat impacts the way our neurotransmitters are produced, it stands to reason that what we eat impacts the way our brains receive neurotransmitters and find mental wealth.

There are many lifestyle interventions that are FREE, that can benefit our brain function as well as our gut. To break it down in the most simple form possible, here’s the acronym LIVE to help you get started and give you some practical ways to start taking nourishing your gut and brain together!

L – Learn to manage stress. Did you know it only takes 2 hours of psychological stress to alter your gut bacteria, and that 75% of our gut issues are due to early childhood trauma? How our brain perceives the world affects the function of our gut and intestinal permeability. Our thoughts are chemical messengers for our body, and the body will respond to our stressful thoughts – whether that thought is a real stressor or an anxious perceived stressor.

I – Identify root causes. As I mentioned above, early childhood trauma can predispose you to gut health issues and as a result, mental health issues. If trauma goes unchecked, it will be stored in your body and show up in all sorts of unpleasant physical symptoms. Because our gut is so often affected by stress and trauma, we need to look at the health of our gut. Environmental toxins are also important to consider because they play a huge role in the leaky gut problem. Mold, household cleaners, disinfectants, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, cosmetic and beauty products, plastics – all of those increase our toxic load, break down our gut lining more, and even junk up our liver so that it becomes harder for our antioxidants produced in our body to cancel out their toxic affects. These toxins can cause brain fog and mood issues. Food sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies, and inflammatory foods (think standard American diet) also negatively impact our mental health and could be a root cause of poor mental health.

V – Variety in your diet. The more colorful, the better! The health of out gut microbiome relies on diversity. As you add in more colorful fruits and veggies, healthy fats, and quality protein, your body will thank you. Your body knows how to absorb and utilize nutrients from real, whole foods. But even eating the same “health” foods over and over again can decrease diversity. You want to nourish your gut with a plethora of whole food sources to provide your body with what it needs – so your brain can have what it needs.

E – Exercise your body and brain. There is no pill on the market that can increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor and work magic on brain cells like exercise can. When we have a stronger brain, with synapses firing the way they are supposed to, we send positive signals to our gut. A brain that is in fight or flight stresses out the gut microbiome. On the other hand, a brain that is calm can help support the rest and digest state of the intestines, which is what we want for optimal digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Whether it is walking, running, weight lifting, or something light like yoga, it impacts the way our brain functions and therefore impacts the gut. But you can exercise your brain in other ways, too! A practice of meditation and mindfulness, being still and mentally observant, can make drastic changes to the way your brain perceives the world around you – and of course, the signals your brain sends to your body as a result. A grateful brain leads to a healthier body and a balanced system. But just like exercise – it takes creating habits and practice.

The last thing I will suggest seems counterintuitive. But remind yourself that your body is on your side. Observe these symptoms and glitches without judgment and ask questions. Are you treating your body like a friend? Or are you being negative toward it and suppressing what it is trying to tell you, trying to push through before you crash? When you partner with your body to dig deeper and uncover what is happening, you can find a new level of healing. We must get on the offensive with our mental health and stop playing defense. When I feel the old familiar crash of apathy or lethargy starting to hit me, or even a surge of too much energy (which is a sign of hypomania), I do a check-in with myself. How am I nourishing myself? What signs am I ignoring? Where do I need to pay attention.

Mental health concerns are NORMAL. Life is a roller coaster. We have ups, and we have downs. We all experience extreme emotions at times. Instead of making our “broken brain” the enemy, let’s dig deeper and uncover what’s really going on in order to live a life of wholeness!

If you’re interested in partnering with me to increase your tools for mental health, and you want to walk through my LIVE protocol, reach out to me on the contact tab. I’d love to get you started on the journey to more mental clarity and a balanced body and brain.

If you want to learn more about the gut/brain connection and supplements that support it, watch this video for a training I recently did: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEypr6D0npg&t=1063s

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