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The Mind-Body Connection

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Your body responds to the food you eat every day, whether it’s by giving you the energy you need or the heartburn you don’t. Learn to listen to your gut.

Do you think much about what you eat and how it makes you feel? Science has long recognized the connectivity between the brain and gastrointestinal system, which, after the brain, is the body’s largest nervous system. But researchers are in the early stages of investigating the gut’s microbiome, the millions of microbes that live in our intestines and communicate with the microbes in our brain daily.

The understanding that our inner ecosystem of bacteria and other organisms can actually “speak” to our brain and influence things like bowel movements, perception of pain, and even our mood is a relatively new one. How these two important organs communicate with each other and what it means may help people with GI problems and other health concerns.

The Mind-Gut Connection

Scientists are interested in that link, notes Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, whose research on the enteric nervous system has garnered international attention. “The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain — with profound results,” he says on the John Hopkins website.

This sharing of information between the intestines and the brain has many researchers working on better understanding how our gut health impacts our mental health.

“For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around,” Pasricha says.

Researchers are uncovering clues that suggest irritation in the gastrointestinal system may be sending signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes.

“These new findings may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety,” Pasricha says.

One Patient’s Story

Financial administrator Lisa Butts has long had issues with constipation. It is a condition her mother struggled with and one she figures runs in her family. As she came into mid-life, she was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome or IBS, a common disorder that affects the large intestine, causing bloating, stomach upset, diarrhea, and constipation.

The limiting nature of her symptoms — unpredictable swings between constipation and diarrhea — gradually forced this busy executive to schedule her day around bathroom breaks. She found herself always having to worry about where relief could be found, whether in a grocery store or at the workplace.

“Every day, I had to think about my stomach,” notes Butts. What’s more, the stress that arose from managing IBS further compounded its symptoms, often leaving Butts feeling anxious and depressed. 

Making a Change

It was a European vacation Butts took with her husband in July 2015 that proved to be her wake-up call. Traveling through Italy where she ate a diet heavy in breads and pasta sent her GI tract into overdrive. In addition to the discomfort of abdominal pain and irregularity, she’d experienced brain fog, which caused her to lose words. Once home, Butts knew she had to make a change. Her symptoms led to depression and a fear of traveling.

“I didn’t want to go out anywhere because I didn’t know when those episodes would happen,” she says. “It became a psychological issue. The unpredictability of my stomach issues created a lot of stress.”

After doing extensive reading, Butts decided to try a gluten-free diet and made an appointment to see her internist a month later.

“When I got off gluten, in six weeks to two months, I was like a different person. I wasn’t losing words anymore. It was like someone had opened a curtain and I could see again,” she says.

Her internist sent Butts to a gastroenterologist, yet he was dubious initially about the food connection. “He listened but he discounted what I had to say,” she says. Further testing revealed a bacterial overgrowth in her small intestine (SIBO), a condition treated with antibiotics (she takes an herbal antibiotic) and one she’ll need to continue to manage. She also did an elimination test called the FODMAPs diet with her dietician to help zero in on specific foods her body can’t break down properly, thus contributing to her symptoms.

“There are so many things that can effect the gut,” says dietician Linda Pennington with Dietician Associates in Germantown. “The foods we eat, illness, medication, stress.” Since the gastrointestinal tract is the biggest part of the immune system, what we eat can impact our overall wellness, says Pennington.

As a dietician, Pennington helps people identify those foods that might be having a negative impact on their health. Using tools like the elimination FODMAPs diet can help patients better understand the challenges some foods present.

The Impact of Diet

Though it may seem obvious to some, it’s not a connection everyone makes, observes Mark Corkins, M.D. division chief of pediatric gastroenterology at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. He says parents will often bring in a child who drinks Starbucks coffee or pours half a bottle of hot sauce on their food and not understand why they’re complaining of belly pain.

“Coffee and spicy foods are stimulants, so that activates the GI tract,” he says. “Our body gives us clues, and we just want to ignore them.”

“There is no one diet that fits everybody,” says Penningtson. “It can be helpful, but we must look at the person as a whole.”  

Pinpointing how those foods affect the flora (the “good” bacteria that help our bodies digest food) of the gut and how that is communicated to the brain will take time. “There are so many influences: diet, stressors, what’s going on in our lives. All of these have input on how the GI tract works. That’s what makes it hard to study,” says Corkins. “That’s why it’s so muddy.”

But practitioners like Corkins and Pennington believe further research may provide answers and potentially better understanding of the mind-gut connection. In the meantime, both recognize the importance of treating patients holistically, by listening to their stories to better understand not just their symptoms, but what other factors, such as stress and lifestyle choices, may be having on their overall health.  

“There is no one diet that fits everybody,” says Penningtson. “It can be helpful, but we must look at the person as a whole.”  

Today, Butts reports she has good days and bad. “But there’s no comparison to what it was like. I’m not awake thinking about my stomach.” Though her IBS issues may never be fully resolved, learning how to manage them better has improved her overall outlook. As research continues, that prognosis may one day prove to be better.

Your body responds to the food you eat every day, whether it’s by giving you the energy you need or the heartburn you don’t. Learn to listen to your gut.

× Seven Ways To Improve Your Gut Health Today

◗ Cut down on processed foods. Our bodies aren’t designed to metabolize the amount of animal fat, red meat, and highly processed foods our diets consist of today. Think about your daily intake of meat, then reduce the serving size or replace it entirely with poultry, fish, or a vegetable dish. Avoid heavily fried foods. And pledge to eat three servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

◗ Avoid artificial flavorings. These include emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, and fructose corn syrup, additives the food industry relies heavily on to make products more appetizing. Yes, non-nutrient sweeteners may help on the weight-loss front but their intense sweetness can fool your taste buds into thinking the natural sweetness found in fruits and veggies isn’t enough. The upshot? You turn to artificially sweetened foods over natural ones. Read food labels more closely and learn the 54 different names sweeteners go by, then cut them out of your diet for better health.

◗ Get moving. Whether you walk, play a sport, or ride your bike, “Doing some sort of daily activity is important,” says Dr. Mark Corkins. “That helps with your GI health.”

◗ Diversify food choices. Do you find yourself reaching for the same handful of foods every day? One way to improve your gut health is to diversify the types of foods you eat. Instead of having toast and coffee for breakfast, why not try peaches with oatmeal? Another easy switch is a half-cup of Greek yogurt with fresh blueberries and almonds, flavored with a dash of cinnamon. Poached eggs are a great nutritional breakfast item, one rich in protein.

◗ Try new ways to prepare vegetables. Many nutritionists believe a plant-based diet is healthier, but if you’ve still boiling your veggies, you’re cooking away their goodness. Roasting broccoli, asparagus, or Brussels sprouts gives these staples a hearty, robust flavor. Spread your vegetables on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, flavor with rosemary and thyme, then roast in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes until al dente. Another option is to bake a butternut squash. You’ll be surprised by its rich, mellow flavor. Sweet potatoes, too, are a vitamin-rich vegetable that don’t have to be smothered in marshmallow goo to be tasty. Next time, simply bake one and serve with a dab of butter. 

◗ Learn to listen to your gut. Your body responds to the food you eat every day, whether it’s by giving you the energy you need or the heartburn you don’t. Pay attention to how you feel after eating a meal. Gastrointestinal issues such as chronic constipation, gas, or bloating can be an indication that certain foods don’t work well with your GI system. Identify what these foods are. For example, garlic and onion can be a digestive problem for some people, dairy or wheat products for others. Know your body and eliminate problem foods from your diet. “When food is killing you, that’s not living well,” says dietician Linda Pennington

◗ Try relaxation practices like yoga and meditation. Since an unhappy gut can be made worse by stress, try practicing yoga or learning how to meditate. Corkins recently attended a medical conference where two papers presented showed positive evidence that yoga can help with IBS “because it teaches people how to focus and relax,” he says. 

“There are so many influences: diet, stressors, what’s going on in our lives. All of these have input on how the GI tract works.” — Mark Corkins, M.D.