This age-old saying is arguably more relevant now than it has ever been, with the gastrointestinal system (GI) being referred to as the ‘second brain’. The butterflies that flitter in the stomach when you’re nervous, or the wave of nausea that comes before a big presentation are all part of the communication between the brain and the gut.
This is, in part, influenced by the vagus nerve, which sends messages from the central nervous system to the intestinal tract. As this is a two-way system, the brain also receives input from the GI tract. It makes sense then, that the mind has the power to influence the body in times of physical and emotional stress.
Also, the gut has a direct impact on the immune system.
The role of stress
Stress can be physical or psychological – the body doesn’t differentiate. It might be your car breaking down on the motorway or being put on the spot in a quiz. Stress is often the force behind our frustration, irritation and anxiety.
Stress hormones come hard and fast and the body prioritises immediate survival, over digesting that baguette for lunch. Also, blood moves away from the gut and food can sit unprocessed for longer than it should. This allows for fermentation, increased belching and flatulence and the discomfort that comes with it. Reduced digestive juices, paired with a rush of hormones, can also cause feelings of nausea.
This is why we often feel physically sick when facing a mental challenge.
If the body cannot process food, it will often try to reduce the burden and remove it. As anyone who has felt that churn in their stomach knows, it can also be responsible for rapid elimination. When food does not pass GO and heads straight to the bowel, nutrients are not absorbed and excess water is lost.
While this might not be detrimental if once in a blue moon, ongoing digestive issues lowers the ability of the immune system to function. In cases of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), stress and anxiety have shown a direct correlation. As this communication system runs both ways, IBS can also be a factor in developing anxiety.1
When digestive juices run low, insufficient nutrients get absorbed. This begins to impact the integrity of the GI lining, a precursor to conditions like leaky gut and makes it harder to counteract the stress response. A leaky gut triggers an immune response and can contribute to conditions such as eczema, allergic reactions, depression and skin conditions.
The GI does, however, have its own, in-house, immunity regulator.
When chomping down on that fresh-looking salad from the roadside stall, the last thing we think about is the micro-organisms that might be lingering on the lettuce. This is where our enteric nervous system (ENS) jumps in. The ENS is home to millions of neurons and glial cells residing in the gut and keeps the digestive system on track, regulating blood flow, digestive juices, the gut barrier and the movement of food through the GI tract. The ENS keeps this machine running smoothly.2
It also enables an immune response. As that salad moves through the digestive system, the immune cells residing in the GI become alerted to pathogens. A local immune response kicks in, and the unwanted microbes are removed.
While this part of the body is self-regulated, inflammation, environmental factors and stress, can throw it off track.
The party of microbes
The microbiome is also an important piece in the gut, mood, and immunity puzzle. The billions of bacteria that reside in the GI system communicate with other body systems, the brain and the nervous system, and keep the harmful bacteria in check.
The bacteria profile is individual and is established from birth. Dietary choices, environment and frequency of illness, impact how this develops and the variety of bacteria that come to the party. These little guys are responsible for changes in mood, immune resistance, food digestion and organ structure at a cellular level. Needless to say, an imbalance in the microbiome has a significant impact on the whole body.
Studies have shown that mood changes, including depression, anxiety and stress, alter the microbiome. This also works in reverse with changes in the microbiome directly impacting mood.
Finding the balance
With a scenario that resembles the chicken and the egg, it can be difficult to identify which causes which and where to start helping to regulate the digestion system, mood, natural immunity and the microbiome.
Herbal support is a perfect place to start.
The blend of Kawakawa, Ginger and Peppermint, in Kiwiherb’s Kawakawa Stomach Calm, is ideal for calming digestive discomfort, reducing nausea and aiding the movement of food through the digestive tract.
Slow, consistent movement of food is essential for nutrient uptake. Including plenty of dietary fibre, from psyllium, wholegrains and leafy greens in the diet, also supports this and acts as a prebiotic, feeding healthy bacteria and encouraging diversity.
To help with your stress response, Kiwiherb’s Calm Down combines Withania, L-theanine, Chamomile and Hops. This helps regulate your stress response and mood. You can use it for daily maintenance and in times of acute need, as it starts working within 5 minutes.
Making meal time a calm occasion with minimal distraction is the ideal way to keep the focus on digestion.
To give your immune system a bit of help, Kiwiherb’s ImmuneBerry uses Echinacea, Blackcurrant, Olive leaf and Elderberry, to help balance the immune response, and offers antioxidant actions to keep pathogens at bay.
Our bodies are the most incredible and intricate systems that are always working to remain healthy. They benefit from herbal support and sometimes just need a bit of extra help.
- Holland AM, Bon-Frauches AC, Keszthelyi D, et al. The enteric nervous system in gastrointestinal disease etiology. Cell. Mol. Life Sci [Internet]. 2021;78: 4713–4733. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00018-021-03812-y
- Margolis KG, Cryan JF, Mayer EA. The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: From Motility to Mood. Gastroenterology [Internet]. 2021 Jan 22;160(5):1486-1501. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2020.10.066