Your Digestive Issues Could Be Starting In Your Head

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Your gut health and your mental health are as inescapably intertwined as summertime and rosé. This link is an area Western medicine has just begun to explore (more on that in a bit). But it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: Which came first, your anxiety or your gut issues? We spoke to Kimberly Snyder, nutritionist and New York Times best-selling author of the Beauty Detox book series and Radical Beauty, to help break down the brain-gut connection.

“In 2001, Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine, physiology and psychiatry at UCLA, found that the brain and the gut have a complex, bi-directional communication system that aids in digestion but also motivation and higher cognitive functions, including intuitive decision-making,” Kimberly says. “It turns out the pathway to treating depression, IBS, ulcers and anxiety may be hiding in the connection between the gut and the brain. If you’re stressed, anxious, worried or upset, distress signals are sent to your gut and can create an imbalance.”

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The Gut-Brain Connection

"The mind and the body are intrinsically connected, as our bodies are holistic organisms that need attention paid to the entire biological system as opposed to its various parts," says Kimberly. And yes, that holistic approach should include your mental well-being.

"Stress and anxiety greatly affect your body. While the stress response begins in the brain, it quickly spreads to the rest of the body through the release of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. Continually high levels of stress hormones affect multiple systems in your body, including glucose metabolism, blood pressure regulation, immune function and inflammation. The gut is the only organ with its own intrinsic nervous system, which is able to mediate impulses in the complete absence of input from the brain."

In other words, stress majorly messes with your gut.

"Western medicine has historically treated the body as a group of separate parts that function independently from one another. However, in the past 20 years or so there has been a lot of science concerning the enteric nervous system by Dr. Michael Gershon, the neurobiologist considered largely responsible for our current understanding of the many functions of the gut," explains Kimberly.

"Also, the ancient teachings of Ayurveda have told people for years that our emotional state has a dramatic impact on our physical health. So while this is a fairly new way of thinking for the Western world, Eastern medicine has held this ethos for hundreds of years."

"The GI tract is greatly affected by stress," says Kimberly. "It can induce inflammation, impair contraction and increase the body's susceptibility to infections." That can manifest in a chronic upset stomach, irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive issues. (Lol classic gut response to stress.)

"However, positive emotions do not have taxing effects on the body," she adds.

"Not taking probiotics can cause damage to your gut," Kimberly says. "Furthermore, a diet of non-organic, processed food, including pasteurized milk and other unnatural food substances, can distort the balance of beneficial bacteria and create gut leakage." (Um, ew.)

"Last, not learning to effectively deal with stress can be detrimental to your health in multiple facets."

"The best thing you can do is take a high-quality, reputable probiotic," says Kimberly. She specifically recommends soil-based organism (SBO) probiotics, which are "microscopic friendly bacteria abundant in the natural world that can thrive in the intestines, promoting growth of other probiotics." These friendly bacteria are to pathogens, yeast and mold what the Night Watch is to White Walkers: They fight them off and protect your body.

"SBO probiotics are well-adapted to the environment of the gut and have been shown to remain in the digestive tract where they can provide long-term benefits to your physical and mental health," Kimberly adds.

"In addition, you should stay hydrated to keep your body functioning properly and aid digestion. And eliminate processed foods, which are toxic and can imbalance the microflora in your gut."

And don't forget about stress. "Because stress is so detrimental to gut health, I urge you to find ways to manage it, whether it be yoga, meditation, quiet time or time with friends," she says.