The brain has an average of 100 billion neurons, which are cells that transmit neurotransmitters and nerve impulses throughout the body. The gut is often thought of as the second brain because it contains upwards of 100 million neurons that also produce neurotransmitters that communicate with the brain. In fact, about 90 percent of the body's serotonin is released in the gut. As you can imagine, this pathway of communication between the gut and the brain plays an essential role in your mental health. When there’s inflammation in the gut, this can cause inflammatory emotions like anxiety and depression.
How it Works
The vagus nerve refers to a pair of cranial nerves that play an essential role in your biological and emotional pathways. These nerves start in your brainstem and end in the lower abdominal region. The vagus nerve reads the information in your gut and sends impulses to the brain, including emotional and intuitive information. This is the origin of the phrase “gut feeling.” The brain also communicates information down to the gut through this pathway. When this pathway is healthy, your brain receives a message that conveys safety which allows you to be relaxed and calm. This is called a healthy vagal tone, and it allows the brain to think clearly and receive accurate gut instincts. When this pathway is irritated or activated, your brain receives a message of danger which can trigger the fight or flight response in your nervous system. This can also release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in your body. These stress hormones can interfere with your clarity of thought, and trigger emotions and mood swings including anxiety and depression. By improving your vagal tone, and your gut health, you can change the signal that you’re sending to the brain, which in turn affects your mental health.
Additionally, the gut contains bacteria and other microorganisms that affect your brain, your immune system, and your behaviors. The foods you eat can contribute to the type of bacteria or parasites you're hosting. A high-fiber diet can help you host more helpful bacteria and fewer unhelpful organisms. While there's some research to support the use of probiotics to improve gut health and mental functioning, such as those in yogurt, it's not yet clear exactly how this works.
Your diet can also impact your digestion, skin, blood sugar, weight, sleep, and overall health. Food choices are also one of the main factors that contribute to inflammation in the gut. There’s a lot of mythology about the effectiveness of cleanses and supplements as a quick fix to improve gut health but there isn’t much research to support this. Instead, it’s important to reduce your intake of inflammatory foods and to eat anti-inflammatory foods on an ongoing basis.
Inflammatory Foods to Avoid
Excessive dairy products (sugar-free yogurt might be the only exception)
White flour products and refined carbohydrates
Excessive gluten and yeast
Fried foods and other trans or saturated fats
Meats infused with antibiotics
Increase Your Intake of These Anti-inflammatory Foods
Salmon, tuna, and herring
Extra virgin olive oil (uncooked)
Leafy green vegetables
Ongoing acupuncture sessions can help you to improve your gut health, especially abdominal acupuncture. Try to be consistent with your treatment sessions and ask your acupuncturist for an anti-inflammatory meal plan.
Deep relaxation techniques such as meditation and hypnotherapy can help to relax the gut, interrupt the stress signal that’s being communicated to the brain, reduce pain, inflammation, and also help with digestion and nutrient absorption.
Lifestyle Tips to Improve Your Vagal Tone, Your Gut, and Mental Health
Improve your posture. A collapsed posture can have a negative impact on your vagus nerve. Look into Feldenkrais or The Alexander Technique to improve your posture so you can move through life ergonomically while reducing the stress signal in your body and mind.
Take cold showers. This will stimulate the vagus nerve and helps you feel more relaxed afterward.
Breathe deeply into your diaphragm. Shallow breathing can contribute to anxiety and depression. Practice breathing slowly down into the belly and diaphragm throughout the day. Avoid restrictive clothing that cuts off your circulation, especially around the belly. Remember that when your gut is relaxed, you’re sending a relaxation signal to your brain as well.
Chanting or singing. Singing can expand your breath and stimulate the vagus nerve. The “OM” and "VOO" sounds have a particularly calming effect on the nervous system. Chant or sing for at least 3 minutes a day.
Reduce unnecessary stress in your life. This includes not multi-tasking as often, managing your time so you’re not rushing around, reducing codependent relationship dynamics, spending less time on social media, watching less news or other overstimulating media, and improving your sleep quality.
To learn more about the gut and how it affects your mental health, you can view the documentary, The Gut: Our Second Brain for free on amazon.