The gut and the brain are directly connected. 

Remember when you had to sprint to the bathroom before giving a Social Studies presentation in the 7th grade? What about that time you didn’t poop for days after fighting with your partner or getting a massive tax bill? It’s all biology, baby. This is the gut-brain connection! How does the digestive and nervous system work together? It’s not about popping antibiotics or downing fiber supplements. It’s about treating your gut and nervous system TOGETHER to achieve whole-body healing.

We can’t fight nature or rewire how we’re built but we can use this knowledge to fix our bodies correctly.

An Overview of the Nervous System (to better understand how the digestive and nervous systems work together)

Have you ever heard of the Vagus nerve? It’s a key player in the gut-brain connection. It’s a two-way highway between your gut and your brain. The Vagus Nerve sends messages between the two about your mood, digestion, and more.

The types of messages being sent can depend on what state your nervous system is in. That’s how the digestive and nervous system work together.

There are two modes it can be in: sympathetic (go mode) or parasympathetic (chill mode).

Sympathetic or “fight or flight” mode is activated when our bodies perceive a threat. This revs up the physical changes listed below that allow us to respond quickly to “danger”:

Sympathetic tasks include:

  • Increased heart rate.
  • Release of cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones).
  • Pumping of blood towards heart, lungs, and brain and away from the digestive organs.
  • Slowing down of digestive enzymes and stomach acid.
  • Increased mental alertness and focus.

When stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response, it can disrupt gut motility, nutrient absorption, and the composition of your microbiome. On the other hand, chronic gut issues can also impact mood and cognitive function, highlighting the intricate interplay between gut health and mental well-being.

The purpose of entering “fight or flight” mode is exactly that – our bodies are primed to either fight for survival or flee from danger.

For our ancestors, this was super handy when coming face-to-face with a mountain lion or a natural disaster. But let’s be real, rarely do we have to worry about those kinds of stressors these days.

Nevertheless, things like tax season or ongoing intrusive thoughts are still enough to activate this “fight or flight” response. Our nervous system registers these two “dangers” as equally threatening.

When does this become problematic?

When we are in the Sympathetic mode the blood is pumped AWAY from the digestive organs. Plus, we produce less stomach acid. Digesting just really isn’t at the top of the priority list when you’re facing a “life-threatening” situation. 

Chronic stress can either make our digestion stop completely (constipation) or speed up (bathroom sprint) to clear out the system for swift action.

Sound familiar?

That’s how the digestive and nervous system work together.

Unfortunately, many people today experience chronic stress, which takes a toll on our bodies as we remain stuck in fight-or-flight mode. This constant state of stress can result in symptoms such as burnout, weakened immunity, fatigue, and digestive issues.

On the flip side, the other mode of our nervous system, the “rest and digest” state, is known as the parasympathetic mode. In this state, the body prioritizes healing, repair, rest, and, of course, digestion.

Parasympathetic tasks include:

  • Slowing down the heart rate.
  • Release of enzymes that help us digest food and hormones to sleep better.
  • Release of digestive enzymes and stomach acid.
  • Regulation of our moods, thanks to neurotransmitters.

Being in this state allows our intricate digestive systems to do their thing and keep things moving along.

The tricky part is that we can only be in one mode at a time. 

And with our daily lives being oh-so-stressful, so many of us wind up stuck in fight or flight. Fixing chronic stress and the resulting digestive issues won’t be fixed overnight… and it certainly can’t be solved with a bottle of pills or a special diet.

So what’s the solution? 

Treating the body as a whole! Discovering the root of how your digestive and nervous system work together and supporting them both!

Here’s an example from one of my very own patients. (Her name has been changed and details slightly edited.)

How Does The Digestive and Nervous System Work Together?

How does the digestive and nervous system work together? Girl touching gut and head seemingly in pain and frustration.

A Real-Life Example: Jenna’s story

I had a 34-year-old patient come in with constant migraines, extreme anxiety that made her feel short of breath, a tight chest and racing thoughts that interfered with her day-to-day tasks and made it hard to fall asleep at night. 

She also dealt with constipation where she would go 3-4 days without a bowel movement, then have to use Smooth move tea to go to the bathroom. 

This created a vicious cycle where she became dependent on laxatives and what we call “lazy bowel”. She didn’t know what was causing the constipation. This contributed to her already high stress level.

When she had visited her Family Doctor, they told her to drink more water, to take Miralax, and diagnosed her with IBS-C.  For a month or two, she tried this prescription, but felt frustrated because she didn’t know why it was happening and it really didn’t help.

She booked a Functional Medicine consultation with me. After going over her diet, lifestyle, and health history, I noticed a few “low-hanging fruit” right off the bat.

Nutrition and Exercise Habits

First, she skips breakfast every morning because she’s not hungry and figured she was basically just intermittent fasting which is supposed to be good for you. She would do spin class or CrossFit 4 or 5 days a week and 30 minutes of cardio on the other days.  

While intermittent fasting and high-intensity workouts can offer health benefits, overdoing them, especially during times of heightened stress, can perpetuate a state of sympathetic fight-or-flight mode. To help Jenna shift away from this state, I recommended incorporating a warm, savory breakfast (like eggs, broccoli and avocado) within an hour of waking, even if she doesn’t feel hungry initially. Retraining the body to recognize hunger cues is essential, as a lack of appetite in the morning is often a sign of being stuck in fight-flight mode.  

Additionally, I advised Jenna to scale back on high-intensity classes to twice a week and substitute them with gentler forms of exercise like yoga until her stress levels diminish. This approach aims to reduce the overall burden on her nervous system and promote a more balanced physiological state conducive to healing and well-being.

A Stressful Job and a Sedentary Lifestyle

She just started a new job after looking job hunting for months and there is a she has to learn in this new role. It’s a work-from-home position that requires her to be at the computer from 8 am – 4 pm. I had her check her iPhone Health app to see how many steps she gets on average per day and it was currently at 2000.

While there’s not much we can do to mitigate the stress of being jobless or learning a new position, we need to add things to help us reduce our internal stress load so that we can respond to external stressors better. I had her download the Headspace app and start doing their “365” program which is a different meditation for every day. It starts with 5-minute sessions and slowly teaches you and increases time while you learn how to meditate. I told her to do this immediately upon waking up in the morning. 

After meditation, she now goes for a 10-15 minute walk outside to help regulate her cortisol levels by getting natural sunlight in her eyes and skin. I also had her aim for 4000 steps a day for the next 2 weeks. To do this, she needs to do a lunchtime and after-work walk. Getting outside and walking helps to ground you, regulate your nervous system, and movement massages the intestines. Just because you do intense workouts a few times a week does not mean it’s good for your body to be sitting and sedentary the rest of the day. We need to move throughout the day!

Side Note: What do you think is more neglected- the nervous system or the digestive system? Check out this article to learn how to support a neglected nervous system!

Consistently Eating Takeout

 For lunch, she would make sandwiches or a salad. Too burned out to make dinner, she often had takeout.

We had her start meal-prepping on Sunday by making a baking sheet full of chicken breast and chicken thighs. Another baking sheet contained sweet potatoes so she can use that for quick and easy breakfasts. We also had her make a baking sheet of roasted root veggies like beets, carrots and onions. This allows her to have more of her meals at home instead of ordering from restaurants. At restaurants, foods are often loaded with seed oils, added sugars, and other ingredients that can inflame our guts and brains.

Where Functional Medicine Comes In- Testing & Lifestyle Changes

We also did comprehensive bloodwork and the GI Effects Stool Test by Genova Diagnostics. Results take three weeks. In that time, we worked on her diet and lifestyle habit changes. By the time we had the Case Review, where we went over her results, she was already feeling 10x better. Her migraines decreased to once a week. She was starting to go to the bathroom every other day instead of every 3-4 days. Her anxiety lessened despite her stressful job. She was able to fall asleep easier most nights and didn’t have as intense shortness of breath. 

Her bloodwork showed that she had high glucose and hemoglobin A1c which suggests that her blood sugar was high and dysregulated. This is common for active, fit women who skip breakfast and aren’t eating enough fat and protein during the day.  Her liver enzymes (AST, ALT, and GGT) were all high and she told me later she has a hard time digesting fats. This suggests she isn’t producing or secreting enough bile from her liver and gallbladder.

Her stool test showed that she had gut dysbiosis. There were very small amounts of the beneficial bacteria strains. This made sense! The year before she had taken 3 rounds of antibiotics for acne. 

Our gut bacteria help us produce feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and GABA. If we don’t have enough of the bacteria that make them, we also won’t make enough neurotransmitters. The result is anxiety, depression and lack of motivation.

Stress also depletes the microbiome making the situation even worse.

Supplementation – Supporting How The Digestive and Nervous Systems Work Together

I also suggested that Jenna take the following supplements to continue the improvements she was feeling.

  • Cortisolv by Xymogen – contains adaptogens to help calm and regulate the nervous system when it’s in anxious overdrive (can be purchased through my online pharmacy Wholescripts)
  • GCO by Cellcore – to help regulate blood sugar and help with cravings. We also had her limit snacking and eat more protein and fat with each meal
  • CT-Biotic by Cellcore – their probiotic which contains humic and fulvic acids to help rebuild the cells and provide them with ATP and energy
  • The Liver Kit by Cellcore – contains 3 supplements (TUDCA, KL Support and LymphActive) to help open up her detox pathways, support her liver to produce more bile and get her lymphatic system flowing to help improve constipation and reduce headaches that often come from an overburdened liver and build-up of toxins. If you’re not pooping, you’re not detoxing and that all builds up!

Cellcore can be purchased with my practitioner code rwd3vHQ5 

Highly recommend talking with a practitioner before buying Cellcore

A combination of lifestyle changes, bloodwork, a stool test, and supplements is what it took to get Jenna feeling healthier and better than ever. It wasn’t one specific thing that unlocked the key to her health. Rather, all of these things worked TOGETHER to solve the mystery of her troubling symptoms. Her digestive and nervous systems were working together. To find a solution, we had to look at them together.

Keep in mind this is only an example of a stressed-out gut-brain connection. Everyone’s health, biology, and symptoms are different… so if this blog resonated with you, you’re in the right place!

How to Actually Fix your Gut Issues – Work Together With Your Digestive and Nervous Systems

If you’ve been struggling with gut issues and nothing seems to be working, it might be time to shift your focus to your nervous system. The Digestive and Nervous System Work Together either FOR you or AGAINST you!

Like we discussed above, stress has a sneaky way of creeping up on us, often accumulating without us even realizing it. 

Things like toxic relationships, work deadlines, fasting or skipping meals, HIIT workouts, heavy cardio multiple times a week, staying up late scrolling, partying every weekend, drinking a glass of wine or taking a Xanax to go to sleep at night… can all add up. And guess what? Our body keeps the score (check out this great book on how our bodies hold onto our emotional stress and trauma).

When our bodies are stuck in survival mode, it can wreak havoc on our guts.

So, if you’ve been trying to heal your gut without addressing your stress levels, it’s like trying to fix a leaky pipe without turning off the water supply first. 

By calming your nervous system and reducing stress, you’re giving your gut the chance to heal and function optimally. It’s all about treating the root cause rather than just the symptoms.

The #1 way to do this is by implementing daily stress management tools. In my Anxiety Freebie, I share 12 suggestions you can start incorporating today! 

Book a Functional Medicine Consultation To Support Your Digestive and Nervous Systems

Another strategic way to start healing is by booking a Functional Medicine consultation. During this appointment, we’ll do a deep dive into your current symptoms so I can create a treatment plan designed just for you. Whether you’re dealing with constipation, diarrhea, mild stress symptoms or chronic ones, I’m here to help you understand it all. Together, we can start fixing that leaky pipe for good.

Click here to book a Functional Medicine appointment!