Heal Holistically By Discovering The Connection Between The Mind and Gut

Is your digestion more unpredictable than a Magic 8 ball? Are you constantly stressed, overwhelmed, and a wound-up ball of anxiety? Here’s something to chew on: to get better, your need to fix the mind gut connection (also known as the brain-gut connection). Basically, these two systems are closely linked, and when one’s out of whack, the other follows suit. Stress is one of the biggest contributing factors to gut health. Similarly, a messed-up gut can be a sneaky cause of anxiety.

I’ve worked with hundreds of patients to help them heal their anxiety, bloating, and IBS. Along with daily, easy-to-pass bathroom sessions and less frequent anxiety attacks, you can also look forward to better energy, sounder sleep, and more focus. Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?

In my last blog, I recapped 5 signs that stress is impacting your gut and did a deep dive into the gut-brain connection, so check it out! Today, for the grand finale, I’m sharing 5 ways to heal your gut-brain connection. But first…

A Quick Recap on the Mind Gut Connection

The Vagus Nerve connects the brain and gut. In fact, the Vagus Nerve acts as the communication highway between them. When your body is in the “chill mode” of the parasympathetic nervous system, the mind and the gut signal that all is well. This state is known as “rest and digest,” characterized by calm, even breaths, efficient digestion, and a steady heart rate.

On the flip side, when your body is in “go mode” (aka sympathetic), the brain focuses on tasks needed for immediate survival. It increases your heart rate and starts pumping blood to your arms, legs, and heart. This also means digestion falls to the back burner. Your body is focusing on tasks that will keep you safe from the perceived danger.

Here’s the catch: we can only be in one mode at a time. And while both of them are important, in our fast-paced, multi-tasking modern lives, we usually end up in “fight or flight” mode more often than not. This chronic stress has a massive impact on our body, disrupting gut motility, nutrient absorption, and the composition of our microbiomes (aka all those little bacteria that live in your gut). 

Bottom line: your brain directly impacts what’s happening in your gut and your gut affects what’s going on in your brain. Contrary to what the internet or what your family doctor might tell you, throwing antibiotics or a probiotic at it isn’t going to solve the root of the problem.

You need to treat your gut and your mind together

Here are a few things you can start doing TODAY, right now even, to help tone your vagus nerve. Think about it like toning a muscle. We want it to be strong so it can switch into the parasympathetic mode so we aren’t stuck in fight-or-flight. 

  • Gargle
  • Sing
  • Hum
  • Laugh
  • Take cold showers
  • Practice deep breathing
  • Do cat-cow yoga poses

Now, this isn’t going to be a quick fix. In order to get your nervous system back online we’re going to need to address the reason it got out of whack in the first place!

The next five steps may require a bit more effort than humming and singing as you’re going about your day, but the goal remains the same: healing your gut and nervous system. 

Nothing is more important than your health, yet we often take it for granted until it’s compromised.

I want to ask yourself… What will it take to change the trajectory of your health and take back control? Today’s the day. You have the power to heal your body. The Mind Gut Connection is an amazing place to start.

Stretching in the Sun - One of the Steps to Healing the Mind Gut Connection

Start With The Gut –  Clean Up Your Diet

One of the first things you should address to fix the mind gut connection is your diet. What we eat plays a massive role in all areas of our health – and these two are no exception!

The first thing I always recommend to my patients is the Whole30 diet. It’s a 30-day reset of eating real, unprocessed foods and eliminates a lot of the processed foods that cause anxiety, gut issues, inflammation, headaches, and more.

Focus on eating high-quality organic, grass-fed, or wild meats, a variety of vegetables, fruits (as dessert), and a small amount of nuts or seeds.

Nix the dairy, grains, processed foods, and anything with added sugar that most Americans consume in massive quantities.  Most of us grew up with the Food Pyramid model ingrained into us that we need processed carbs (bread, pasta, tortilla, toast) with every meal. This is one of the biggest issues I see with most diets. 

Grains can be inflammatory on the gut and brain AND when we eat these carbs they turn into sugar quickly, leading to spikes in blood sugar levels and a rollercoaster of highs and lows. When blood sugar gets too high (sugar, bread, muffins, smoothies, etc.), it crashes, and we need to release cortisol, our main stress hormone, to raise it back up. High cortisol levels feel a lot like anxiety. Shifting towards a diet rich in protein and vegetables, instead of relying on processed carbs, can significantly improve your gut health and anxiety.

Gluten and other grains (especially if not organic) can also cause inflammation in the gut partially because they’re heavily sprayed with glyphosate (weedkiller) and also because of certain proteins they contain. Inflammation in the gut can cause inflammation in the brain (brain fog, migraines, trouble concentrating) thanks to the Vagus Nerve.

Making changes to your eating habits can definitely feel like stepping out of your comfort zone, but it’s all about creating new, healthier routines.

Your current habits might have led you to where you are now, so changing them up is key to feeling better. 

While change can be tough, a big part of it is your mindset. Try to focus on how foods make your body feel rather than just the instant gratification of how they taste for 60 seconds.

Doing Whole30 will retrain your taste buds. The more you deviate from highly processed, ultra sweet lab-made chemicals in your foods to those made by mother nature, you’ll start to crave healthy stuff more often.

Once you get the hang of eating this way for the first 30 days, I recommend transitioning to a paleo lifestyle. They are quite similar, however, Whole30 is designed to be more of a “reset” for 30-60 days. Paleo is designed to be a long-term way of eating. Check out this article for more nitty-gritty details on the differences.

This transition can be tough, especially if you’re used to ordering takeout every day (which is often loaded with processed oils) or starting your day with a giant sugary latte from Starbucks. However, you will get used to it, your palate will change, and you’ll feel amazing. When you get off the rollercoaster of blood sugar dysregulation, you’re energy levels will improve immensely. 

Support Your Mind and Gut – SLOW DOWN!

Does just the thought of your Google Calendar give you anxiety? Do you get flare-ups in your chest every time you hear your phone notifications go off? 

I hate to break it to you, but your schedule might be contributing to your gut-brain fiasco. Nearly all of us need to slow the heck down these days. Start saying no to social events and commitments that aren’t in alignment with how you’re feeling and use that time to relax and do nothing. Most of us are doing TOO MUCH so ‘doing nothing’ feels unsafe for our nervous systems <cue the “lazy” self-talk>.  

Another way to slow down is to ditch the multitasking while you eat. I see you over there, scarfing down lunch while scrolling TikTok! Put down the devices and focus on being present during meals. No TV, no computer, no phone. Challenge yourself to chew until each bite is liquified.

The same thing applies to loud, overstimulating media. That intense drum & bass playlist? Sorry, boo, but it’s probably keeping your nervous system on edge. The morning news? Nope. Hard pass. Listen to calming music instead and opt out of stressful news, movies, and shows. 

If you know that you’re notorious for getting stuck in scroll holes, set a timer for the apps you find most distracting.

Holistic Healing – Develop a Morning Ritual

We’ve all had those mornings where everything is pure chaos. Our alarm goes off, our heart’s beating fast, and we rush through our to-do list without taking a second to just… breathe.

You’ve heard time and time again that a morning routine is key. I’m not going to suggest a total overhaul, but you should definitely consider adding at least one of these three to each and EVERY morning:

  • Meditation.

    Try Headspace 365 or Insight Timer. 

    • Headspace 365 has a different meditation for every day of the year. It gradually works you up from 5 minutes. This is an amazing app for beginners. They talk you through all the common things you’re thinking while you’re learning to meditate AND teach you tools to make you better! 
    • Insight Timer is almost like a Youtube for meditations so you can search what you’re looking for. “Inner child meditation”, “alignment”, “chakra clearing”, “anxiety”, and “breathwork” are some of my favorites.
  • Journaling.

    Aim for 2-3 pages to really get it all out. It takes those swirling thoughts out of your head and puts them on paper. If you keep dealing with ruminating thoughts, journaling is one of the best ways to let them out! Not sure how to get started? Check out one of my favorite journals with prompts here!

  • Breathwork.

    This is an amazing way to regulate the vagus nerve and helps you connect your body and mind. Check out Wim Hof’s  video!

I recommend doing it right away when you wake up and commit to it every day.  Think of it like brushing your teeth, it’s mental hygiene.  

I also love the concept of habit stacking from James Clear’s Atomic Habits. If there’s something you already do every morning – like going for a walk outside or having coffee, add one of the three suggestions listed above before or after it. This will make it much easier to slide it into your daily routine!

Crucial Fix – Prioritize Sleep

Rest is crucial for improving your mind gut connection. Sleep is when our bodies repair, detox, and restore, so if you’re up until midnight on your phone watching TV or scrolling, you’re not only missing out on prime sleep hours but also likely not getting into deep, restorative REM sleep. That’s why you wake up feeling groggy, like your brain is wrapped in a wet blanket.

Light exposure at night reduces the amount of melatonin we produce. It’s important to keep the lights in your home dim and only use necessary lights. I also suggest reading or meditating before bed instead of watching TV or scrolling on your phone. I know it’s so much easier to grab your device and get lost in a scroll hole, but I promise you’ll feel the difference when you cut out that bad habit!

To best support your circadian rhythm (your body’s biological clock that controls everything from your sleep and wake cycle to metabolism and digestion), I recommend aiming for a 9-10 pm bedtime. If that’s a long stretch from your current routine, bump it earlier by 30 minutes from where you’re at every week until you get there. Once you’re up, try to get outside within an hour of waking up to regulate your cortisol as well.

Grow Healthy Cells – Move Your Body

I get it if your eyes glossed over as soon as you read the title of this section. Moving our bodies should be a daily task.

BUT surprise surprise, it’s another way to keep that gut-brain connection in check! 

Movement supports the brain-gut connection by increasing the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth and health of nerve cells. Physical activity also affects the gut microbiome, leading to a more diverse and beneficial microbial community, which in turn influences brain function, mood and digestion.

You don’t have to hit the gym to reap the benefits (although building muscle mass is great for relieving back/neck pain and overall health). If you’re starting from scratch, simple exercises like lunges or squats beside your desk can be a great beginning.

Yoga and Tai Chi are fantastic options because they focus on connecting your breath and movement, acting as moving meditations. This helps regulate the nervous system and gets it back into that ‘rest and digest’ state we talked about earlier. You can easily find free videos on YouTube to follow during your lunch break. Write it on your to-do list. Put it on your calendar and schedule it in between your meetings.

Above all else, one thing you should ALWAYS be doing is walking! Aim for 1000-2000 more steps than you’re currently walking per day. Use a fitness tracker or the Health app on your phone to get a gauge of where you’re at and add on 1000-2000 more per day each week.

Heal Your Mind Gut Connection – Work With A Pro!

While the above suggestions are a great place to start, they still include generic advice. The wonderful thing about health is that all of us are unique! Yes, the paleo diet can work wonders for basically everyone. But, if you have an imbalance of bacteria in your gut or low levels of B12, magnesium, vitamin D or other important vitamins in your bloodwork, we need to uncover it with testing.

Working with a functional medicine practitioner like myself will uncover the deep, individualized answers you need. I take a look at all markers of health and ask specific questions to understand your unique health and lifestyle. Then, I create a personalized plan to help you fix your gut-brain connection for good. 

This usually includes lifestyle changes (which often make massive changes right off the bat). It may also include: bloodwork, stool/urine/hormone testing, acupuncture (if you’re local), and supplements. We’ll have an ongoing connection and continue seeing each other to check in on your progress and adjust your treatment plan if necessary. 

I also recommend speaking with a mental health professional. Talk therapy is amazing no matter what mental health challenges you’re going through. Getting your thoughts out and receiving personalized guidance from a pro is like the cherry on top for treating your gut-brain connection! 

I would love the chance to meet with you and kick off your mind gut connection journey together! Book a functional medicine appointment to get started.