The hidden connection between your gut and your emotions
By Calie Calabrese, certified Holistic Health Coach
This is a topic I’m extremely passionate about because it’s what started my health transformation. The challenges I faced with my mood and anxiety led me to seek healing and information that transformed my health and my life. It’s why I’m a health coach today. When you go through a transformative experience like I did, you want to bring purpose to the struggle and one way to do that is to share what you learned.
If you’re here reading this post we probably share a similar goal – a desire to feel physically vibrant and emotionally balanced. But because you’re here, I’m going to assume you don’t. And that’s exactly how I felt after having two preemie babies in under 3 years.
I was experiencing chronic anxiety that seemed to only get worse by the day. It manifested in multiple ways from inability to sleep soundly, to shortness of breath that felt like a constant upper respiratory infection, rashes, brain fog and even panic attacks that sent me to the hospital on more than one occasion. My journey with anxiety nearly 10 years ago actually changed my life for the better. It sent me walking through the doors of a local chiropractor. When I told her my story and symptoms she said, ”I’m going to teach you how to eat and it’s going to change your life.”
That’s probably one of the most important sentences that’s ever been spoken to me because it didn’t just change my life…it changed my health, it changed the health of my kids, it changed my career and because of that sentence I’m here working every day to do the same for those of you who are ready for a change.
Mood disorders are some of the biggest issues that bring new health coaching clients through my doors. But here is what I need you to know. These are NOT diseases in their own right. They are symptoms, signs that something is off balance or ill in the body that needs to be remedied. And while you may think it’s all about your brain, your emotions and your nervous system, which it is, in part…the truth is… for most of us…it starts with the gut. And that means that in order to heal, in order to feel healthy, vibrant and balanced…we have to heal our gut first and foremost!
This is a topic that I could talk about for hours, but instead I’m going to give you a high level explanation of the connection between the gut and the brain, my top nutrition tips for starting to heal the gut and some of the natural resources and supplements I use myself and with my health coaching clients to support gut health and mood management.
It’s important to remember that everyone’s body is unique and your experience and healing needs will be unique to you. If you’d like a more in-depth explanation of the gut-mood connection and a detailed explanation of how I treat it check out the video on my website here. If you are struggling with gut health and/or mood management I’d love to work with you. You can check out my private health coaching packages here.
What’s happening in our gut?
There’s been a lot of research and information coming out over the last 20 years about the connection between gut health and our mental health. We now know that it’s not only creating big issues like anxiety and depression - it’s also contributing to challenges we often dismiss as “part of getting older” like brain fog, decreased mental clarity and memory and even sleep issues.
Research is proving over and over that the most powerful path to our brain health and peace of mind is through our gut. Here’s why.
Medical literature has emphasized the role of inflammation in mental health for the last 20 years. Much of the inflammation in our bodies starts in our gut. It’s a chain reaction. First, our digestive systems and excretion systems are being bombarded by toxins from the food we eat, the products we put on our skin, the medications we take, even the water we drink and the air we breathe. All of these invaders need to be identified and processed out of our bodies. So, our elimination systems are working on over drive. Add in highly inflammatory foods like wheat/gluten, dairy and sugar and all the processed foods we eat that keep us in a constant state of inflammation and over time our gut lining is developing tiny holes commonly known as leaky gut. Leaky gut means our gastrointestinal tract lining, which is only one cell thick, has been compromised allowing undigested food particles, cell debris, bacteria components and more to sneak into our blood stream and trigger our immune systems into action. When they stay in action over long periods of time our bodies and our brains get stuck in fight or flight mode so we constantly feel stressed, anxious and on edge. But worse than that, it also allows LPS or Lipopolysaccharides – one of the most villainous of all biological threats that lives IN our bodies – to leak out of the gut – where it’s meant to stay – and travel into our blood stream. This sets off a violent inflammatory response, so violent, that it’s termed an endotoxin – a toxin poisoning us from within. LPS is capable of passing the blood brain barrier, which means it can have a direct impact on inflammation levels in our brains and therefore our moods.
Because our brains lack pain receptors, we can’t feel the inflammation like we would feel it in an arthritic hip. But mood imbalances are a way for our brains to say hey…something is going on here….I’m in pain. The gut, the immune system and the brain are all working together and need to be viewed as a unit. In order to heal the brain, we need to calm the immune system and that starts with healing the gut. So, what can you do?
Nutrition Tips for Gut Healing:
- Remove common inflammatory food triggers like wheat/gluten, dairy and sugar. Gluten is one of the most inflammatory ingredients of the modern era. Yes, we’ve been eating it for 100s of years, but today it is highly modified and often contains 40% more gluten that it did in the past. Dairy is extremely difficult for many people to digest properly. The protein particles are too large for our digestive systems. The problem is, it’s highly addictive. Yup, dairy is addictive. It actually contains a morphine like compound that interacts with opiate receptors in the brain so the more we eat it the more we want it. And then there’s sugar. We all know it’s inflammatory and should be consumed in extreme moderation, but it seems to be hiding in everything. To reduce our dependence on sugar, we’ve turned to artificial sweeteners which are actually much worse. The human body can’t digest them and science has proven that they are impacting gut bacteria in a negative manner and causing metabolic syndrome, which is a broad term for all kinds of diseases from anxiety to fibromyalgia. These foods have to go if you want to heal your gut.
- Opt for organic and non-gmo when possible. We’re trying to ease the burden on our elimination systems and protect and heal our guts, which means we need to do everything we can to eliminate the amount of chemicals we’re putting into our bodies (and on our bodies) so there is less to cause damage and less that our systems have to work to process out. We also want to decrease the foreign substances coming into our bodies that are triggering our immune systems and keeping them on high alert.
- Reduce our dependence on animal products by adopting a plant based diet. This doesn’t mean go vegan or vegetarian exclusively. This simply means reducing the amount of animal products we’re consuming, while also increasing the plant based foods we eat. It’s a known fact that animal products, especially red meat, increase inflammation levels. While eating plants decreases oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, which helps protect against disease while lowering inflammation levels. A plant-based diet is also significantly higher in dietary fiber when compared to a meat centric diet. A high-fiber diet feeds the friendly bacteria in our gut and keeps our digestion running smoothly. This is important because the intestinal tract is the largest immune organ in our body, producing 25% of our immune cells. It's also responsible for digesting our food and absorbing our nutrients. Like I’ve been saying, if the gut's not happy...we're not happy!
Now that we’ve removed some of the trigger foods (or nails in the tire as I like to call them) we need to focus on healing (or patching the holes). Below are some of the natural supplements I use to bring balance and healing back into the gut and give it the support it needs to keep my immune system and mood healthy and balanced.
Natural Supplements for Gut Support and Healing:
- Bone Broth or L-Glutamine – Bone brothis one of the most beneficial foods to consume to restore gut health and therefore support immune system function and healthy inflammation response. Collagen/gelatin and the amino acids proline, glutamine and arginine help seal the openings in the gut lining and support gut You can also opt for an L-glutamine supplement on its own. L-glutamine is the preferred fuel for gut cells and has been proven to help restore gut health and heal damage to the lining.
- Food Enzymes – These start and complete the digestion process. We consume foods made up of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and macronutrients. Food enzymes help break down these components and allow our bodies to more fully absorb the nutrients. Raw foods contain digestive enzymes to help our bodies break them down, but the more processed foods we eat the more enzymes our body has to produce on its own and it’s often not up to the task. As the gut becomes less efficient, it naturally produces fewer digestive enzymes creating a cyclical effect of poor nutrient absorption and digestive stress and challenges ultimately contributing to an unhealthy gut.
- Probiotics – These organisms are found predominantly in the lower GI tract. Their benefits mostly come from the byproducts they produce. These substances help balance the digestive environment, inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, and promote overall health. We inherit probiotic gut bacteria from our mothers, and these microorganisms may be permanently lost as the result of antibiotic use and poor diet. Taking a probiotic daily can help bring the gut flora back into balance and keeping it functioning at its optimal level.
- Fish Oil – Omega-3 fatty acids help increase microbial diversity in the gut, which supports healthy digestion. They also help maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall – which is exactly what we need when we’re trying to heal or prevent leaky gut syndrome.
By working on our gut health we can begin to heal and bring balance to our moods. Because the surface area of the gut is lined with a type of cell that regenerates every 2-3 weeks, those of us without chronic gut problems can start to experience healing in just 2-12 weeks. If gut challenges have escalated to the level of autoimmune-inflammation or are fully damaged, it can take between 12-24 months to completely heal and experience sustainable changes, but healing is possible!