The Brain-Gut Connection

By Marilee Nelson |

featured image: The Brain-Gut Connection

While we all know it’s essential to support your brain health, it might be equally important—if not more!—to support your gut health. Why? Well in simple terms... It’s all connected. So buckle up! We’re getting into anatomy and physiology today.

When looking at the signs and symptoms of mental health issues, we tend to look at what’s wrong with the brain. However, we often overlook the influence that the gut has on the brain. The relationship between the two is known as the brain-gut connection (also the brain-gut axis). In this article, we'll break down what the brain-gut connection is, how it works, why it's so important, and what we can do to make it work a little better!

Breaking Down The Central Nervous System

First, let’s talk about our central nervous system, which controls most functions of the body and mind. Our central nervous system holds the autonomic nervous system1, which involves breathing, contraction and relaxation of muscles, and heartbeat. These functions are under our unconscious control. From there, the autonomic nervous system can further be divided into the:

  • Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS): Creates a calm and composed state within our bodies and prevents it from overworking, regulates bodily functions like digestion and urination.
  • Sympathetic nervous system (SNS): Prepares the body for fight and flight response.

In our everyday lives, our bodies should function in a parasympathetic state. When our PNS is “on”, our bodies can engage in healing and digesting. Our heart rate, blood pressure, and other bodily functions normalize. We can “rest and digest”!

PNS function balances SNS activity. During perceived stress from the environment, the SNS becomes active and the PNS shuts off. In a SNS, or “fight-or-flight” state, our heart rate and blood pressure increase to divert blood flow away from the heart to get us moving. Digestive and immune functions are put “on hold” as the PNS gets shut off to get us out of perceived danger and stress. 

Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles often have us perceiving stressors more often than we were designed. Stressors that can induce SNS activity can come from work or school deadlines, family or relationship stress, financial hardships, being stuck in traffic and even environmental toxins from food, water, air pollution and everyday products. Despite being very different, all of these influences can trigger a sympathetic response!

The enteric nervous system

Now that we know the difference between the parasympathetic nervous system and sympathetic nervous system, let’s talk one more system. The enteric nervous system refers to a web of several hundred million neurons that sense conditions in the gut and relay them back to the brain. Think of it as your car's "error detection system" reporting back to your dash.  

The enteric nervous system takes information based on the gut's environment and reports back to the brain. This information includes what’s going on with the gut; fluid exchange, gastric and pancreatic juices secretion, regulation of endocrine cells in the GI tract, defense reactions and altering local blood flow. That being said, if anything is off in the gut it can result in dysfunction in the brain when signaled by the enteric nervous system that a problem is occurring. The enteric nervous system also communicates with the PNS and SNS, which means its signals can activate when each turn on or off.

The Brain-Gut Connection 

The brain-gut connection means that gut (microbiome) problems can contribute to brain (central nervous system) imbalances, and vice versa. 

Our gut health can be thrown off by a multitude of things. Some of the most common are antibiotic overuse, eating a heavily processed diet, excessive mental and emotional stress, and environmental toxic exposure from chemicals like xenobiotics, phthalates, dioxins, bisphenol, heavy metals, pesticides and air pollutants. We have a lot of gut health information on our blog and podcast, including Dr. Zach Bush On Microbiome Health, How To Improve Digestion Naturally, and Breaking Down Functional Medicine With Holistic Health Practitioner Taylor Dukes

And when our gut health is off, it will signal something is off to the brain, resulting in brain dysfunction. This can result in changes in how feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin are produced, or even leave chronic low-grade inflammation in the brain. These issues have been linked to conditions like anxiety and depression, insomnia, Alzheimer’s disease, mania, and other disorders known to affect mental health. 2

To top it off, the brain-gut connection is a two-way street. When the central nervous system (brain) isn't in balance, the enteric nervous system can become disrupted. This can lead to a multitude of gut health issues ranging in severity from bloating, leaky gut and irritable bowel syndrome to Crohn's disease, gallstones and liver disease. 3 4

How To Maintain A Health Brain-Gut Connection

Here are some tips to keep your brain and gut health in check:

Tip #1: Remove toxic products from your home such as processed foods, pesticides, personal care products, and more - as these can disrupt the gut! 5 Our #TossTheToxins course is a step-by-step guide on the removal of toxins in all areas of your life. For more insight into this process, watch one woman’s amazing health transformation as she tossed the toxins! 

After you've tossed the toxins, replace these products with ones that support the body. Swap processed foods for whole, real foods. Visit our Wellness Center for plenty of resources on non-toxic products (See Our Favorite Non-Toxic Personal Care Products, The Safest, Non-Toxic Cookware, Toss The Toxins For A Happier, Healthier Period and much, much more...) or visit EWG’s Skin Deep database or use the ThinkDirty app to vet products. 

Tip #2:  Make your mental health a priority. The gut microbiome and the mind are directly impacted by negative emotions and emotional stressors. It’s so important to note that negative thought patterns and stress are truly unhealthy for our brain and gut. Read more on 5 Powerful Ways to Toss Toxic Thoughts with a Mind Detox

Tip #3:  Focus on your microbiome by eating organic, incorporating probiotics and probiotic-rich foods like kefir, sauerkraut, kvass, kombucha, and other fermented foods into your diet. You can also use prebiotic fibers found in leeks, garlic, artichokes, and onions to help feed beneficial bacteria. Read our article What Traditional Foods Can Teach Us About Healthier Eating to dig in more. 

Tip #4: Boost your gut and brain health by prioritizing your morning routine! Grounding barefoot in the morning on dew-filled grass without sunglasses sets your body clocks, promotes a healthy microbiome, automatically puts you in parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” mode and reduces inflammation. 

Tip #5: Optimize your sleep!  Sleep deprivation impacts both the gut flora and brain function. Read our 10 Tips For Healthier Sleep for more. 

Tip #6: While the body is extremely capable of regenerating itself, if you feel your gut health is going awry and are experiencing severe pain or mental fogginess, you may need a little help to get back to your most optimal self. This could involve targeted supplements, cutting specific foods or going on a stringent diet, or mind therapies. In this case, working with a professional or specialist to resolve these issues is best. Gut health issues take time to repair and require a lot of attention, but it is 100% worth it!

Brain + Gut = Constant Contact 

Hopefully, this helped you see just how interconnected the brain and gut really are. When there is dysfunction in the gut, the dysfunction is signaled to the brain and can cause conditions like depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. As a result, communication back to the digestive system can become interrupted, and we can see a disruption in all different function of the gut. Overall, the brain and the gut are in constant contact with one another, which is why it's truly so important to take care of both! 

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.