The Gut-Brain Connection and its relation to anxiety, fear and happiness

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Some people usually feel symptoms of discomfort in the stomach or symptoms of bowels just before a big presentation and that is no coincidence because the reason for that discomfort lies in your gut-brain biology. Studies have shown that there is a direct connection between your gut and your brain and is called the gut-brain axis, leading to a direct super-quick communication between the brain and the gut.

Everybody knows that our brain is very important, but probably not many people appreciate the importance of the gut. To put things into perspective, our brain has 100 billion neurons and the next most neuron populated area in our body is our gut with 500 million neurons. Just the sheer density of neurons connected to the brain shows that this part of our body is of utmost importance to the brain. From the outset, it definitely looks as if the brain-gut connection works as an interface between the mental construct and its biology and vice-versa, allowing a seamless daily function of our psychology and physiology.

The vagus nerve travels from your brainstem throughout your body, to finish in your abdomen. On the way, it connects with many major organs, including heart and lungs. We’ve been aware of it for a very long time and been similarly aware of the fact that the vagus nerve is semi-responsible for your body’s regulation of heart rate, breathing rate, digestion, and so forth.        – Buddha Weekly

For most people, when they are nervous they feel that something is wrong in their stomach too or they go without food to complete that assignment overnight. It is actually your gut that is saying to you ‘no food’ if you have to complete this assignment. Therefore, the point is your gut-feeling is no joke and one has to take one’s gut health very seriously for the most effective function of the body and mind.

One study in humans found that people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease had reduced vagal tone, indicating a reduced function of the vagus nerve. This shows that there is a direct connection.  – Harvard Business Review

“I’m always by profession a skeptic,” says Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But I do believe that our gut microbes affect what goes on in our brains.”

To understand how important the gut-brain connection is, let’s look at the key functions of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve performs the below crucial functions in the body:

  • Balance the nervous system – the sympathetic (fight/flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and repair) branches of the nervous system, with more emphasis on relaxation
  • Balance the heart rate and brain responses
  • Develop our compassion, telepathy, and empathy towards others
  • Develop our intuition or “gut knowing”
  • Develop our connection with others and the world (how we relate to each other)
  • Keeps the larynx open for breathing – feeds the lungs and diaphragm
  • Slows/regulates the heartbeat
  • Stimulates the secretion of saliva, release of bile, and peristalsis (contraction) of the bowels
  • Contracts the bladder
  • Sends messages to the brain to produce/release Oxytocin (feel-good/bonding hormone)
  • Reduces anxiety and depression
  • Reduces stress and inflammation
  • Increases immunity and longevity

The vagus nerve can be under-responsive in some people because of past trauma situations or insufficient production of oxytocin, which is first produced by bonding with our caregivers as an infant. But, an under-developed vagus nerve can be repaired. Some of the ways are as below.

  1. Alternate-Nostril Breathing will balance the left and right vagus – sit up straight with a lifted spine. Using your thumb and pinky finger, close off one nostril with your thumb and inhale/exhale through the open nostril for one complete breath. Then use your pinky finger to close off the other nostril and inhale/exhale through the open nostril for another complete breath. Alternate left and right nostrils for a total of 9 complete breaths.
  2. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing (inhale through the nose for a count of 4, exhale through the mouth for a count of 8). Try and expand the belly like a balloon, as opposed to shallow, chest breathing. Aim for 9 complete breaths, especially before meals and bedtime.
  3. Practicing Yoga and Meditation is a natural way to stimulate the VN without even focusing on it directly.
  4. Connecting with nature, exposing your skin to sunlight, eating a whole-foods diet, omega-3 fatty acids, regularly moving the body, and practicing gratitude each and every day are sure ways to keep the vagus nerve toned, stress and inflammation reduced, and our cosmic connection enhanced.

Mark Lyte of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center studies the affects of gut microbes on the brain and he says that never before seen new neuro-chemicals  are produced by the gut bacteria in certain people basis the communication system between the gut and the brain. One group of scientists has tested mice that have behaviors similar to some of the symptoms of autism in humans. The idea is that the probiotics might correct problems the animals have with their gastrointestinal systems — problems that many autistic children also have. In the mice, many of their autism behaviors were no longer present or strongly ameliorated with probiotics.

In summary, your gut and brain are connected physically through millions of nerves, most importantly the vagus nerve. The gut and its microbes also control inflammation and make many different chemical compounds that affect brain health, the perception of good mood, anxiety, fear and happiness. So, the message is: your gut is serious business!


Thank You.