The Tummy & Brain Connection
What is the one thing that is most annoying when it comes to thinking your stomach?
Is it doctors saying that you are overweight? Or family members commenting on your weight which in turn makes you feel terrible about yourself? Or is it not feeling good about how you look? How does this make you feel? How does this change your appetite? What about your health overall?
It’s common to struggle throughout the years to a point in which we don’t even want to hear the word “stomach” ‘tummy’ or even look at it. Maybe this has been the case for you or perhaps not. However, our stomach is an important part of us.
Well, what would you think if I told you that your stomach is attached to your brain and affects your mood? For some of us, it may concerning to hear that since it may impact the way we treat it.
Well, let us put aside this ideology of having to lose weight and turn it around into how it affects our moods and behaviors. Unfortunately, as a society, weight has become an important aspect of beauty and status which affects us, so I don’t want to validate this concept and focus more on how the health of our stomach will improve or not the health of our brains.
During this pandemic, tensions have been high, and the emotions are all around. Different viewpoints on the importance of wearing masks, vaccines, the legitimacy of pandemic, and increasing the numbers of people contracting the virus can cause increase stress. It can be nerve wrecking which in turn, disrupts our overall well-being—from our physical well-being to our mental health.
So, I invite you to think back to when this whole disaster happened, how did you feel physically? When you first heard about the pandemic and began to see people wearing mask, people dying, and the cities/states/countries quarantining their citizens, where in your body was your first reaction? Probably your stomach, right?
When we encounter an unpleasant or nerve wrecking situation, we usually feel knots and discomfort in our tummies. What about when we see someone or something that is pleasant? We feel butterflies or things of that nature. Who would have thought that the stomach affects our moods and mental health?
So, I invite you again, to think about the research and information that follows as a form of education for better health overall, both mentally and physically. Think of it as self-care method for your brain and stomach, not as a form of losing weight to look beautiful or have status amongst your peers. That is a toxic mentality that can cause more harm than good.
According to the John Hopkins Medicine website (2021) the stomach is more complex than the area that receives food and digests. Within the walls of the digestive system, is what medical scientists call the enteric nervous system (ENS) or the little brain in the stomach (John Hopkins Medicine, 2021). The ENS is responsible for your digestion, swallowing, the release of enzymes that breakdown food, helping the blood absorb nutrients and eliminating what it does not need anymore (John Hopkins Medicine, 2021).
In some studies, it has found that people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional bowel problems (e.g., constipation, diarrhea, bloating, stomach pain, and upset stomach) have had an increase in severe mood disorders such as depression and anxiety (John Hopkins Medicine, 2021).
It is a known factor that our moods affect our physical bodies, especially our stomachs. Whenever you have had those so called “gut feelings”, we usually associate our mental health and moods with the stomach but never backwards. Unfortunately, there are not as many studies that help further understand how the stomach affects our moods. Such an important piece of information for our daily well-being, and it is not being considered by many.
So, what can we do to help our moods and physical well-being? Well, it is time to pay closer attention to both. Be mindful of what we are eating, drinking, or not eating and drinking that may be affecting how we feel. Here are some tips on what to consider and remember considering these are a tip for mental health and overall well-being and not just a beauty hack.
- Get physical check ups as often as possible.
- This is to rule out any other physical ailments that may be of important attention.
- Be mindful of what you are eating.
- Are you eating fatty foods, high glucose sugars, carbohydrates?
- Be mindful on how MUCH you eat.
- Are you eating excessively when you have already been full? Remember, if you eat beyond what your stomach and body need you feel sluggish, tired, and even unmotivated (what happened the last time you felt unmotivated to do anything? How did your mood change? Your view about yourself? Your projects?).
- Be aware also of what are you NOT eating.
- Many eating disorders also cause mental health disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and so on. Remember, this isn’t about the ideology of what society thinks SHOULD be beautiful, this is about you feeling good, happy, motivated.
- This also falls into the category of eating just junk food and not healthy food such as grains, fibers, fruits, and veggies that come with vitamins, calcium and all the nutrients that our bodies need.
- Become more active.
- Our bodies need activity, it helps our digestive system to actually digest when we are active. The less active we are, the slower our bodies digest the food and the slower we will be receiving any nutrients.
So remember, the next time you feel that your moods are consistently difficult to manage, even after trying therapy, applying healthy coping skills you have learned, please consult with your doctor or gastroenterologist for a gut check up.
-Elda Stepp, LPC, LMHC, CART