Stress — What Is Your Gut Telling You?

Published on: October 22, 2019

Culinary nutritionist and health coach, Cecilia Yu explains the connection between our gut health and our mental health. Incorporate some of her tips to manage the stress in your life. By Cecilia Yu   Have you listened to your gut lately? Are you at peace or in turmoil over a decision you have been deliberating over? Do you get butterflies in your tummy when you are nervous? How about all those times when you thought to yourself,” I have a gut feeling that…..”? We hear a lot about gut health and how it impacts our immunity, as nearly 80% of it is housed in our digestive tract. But, how about how our gut health affects our brain – namely, our cognitive functions and vice versa? Recent studies confirm that our brain and gut are connected, in both physical and biochemical senses. So what happens in one must influence the other, right?

The brain and gut physical connection

Physically connecting the brain and our gut is the “gut-brain” axis, otherwise known as the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, being the BIGGEST nerve, is where signals from our neurons are transmitted between the brain and gut. Approximately 100 billion neurons are housed in the brain, where a sizeable number of 500 million neurons are contained in the gut. Interestingly, in animal studies, it has been found that gastro-intestinal problems are created when stress inhibits neuron signal transfers via the vagus nerve. So significant is the role of the vagus nerve, one study in humans even found that those with gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s Disease have reduced vagus nerve tone, an indicator of a vagus nerve with reduced functions.

The brain and gut bio-chemical connection

Our brain and gut are also connected through neurotransmitters. These are chemicals produced in both places that control our feelings and emotions. More important to note, our microbes, much of which are living in our gut, produce our neurotransmitters. For example, the serotonin neurotransmitter, which controls our happiness levels, is mostly produced by our gut microbes. Our gut microbes also produce the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter, which controls our anxiety and fear levels. Studies with laboratory mice have proven that certain probiotics can increase GABA production and reduce anxiety and depression-like behaviors.

Stress reduction for optimal physical and biochemical connection

To ensure optimal workings of both the physical and biochemical connections between brain and gut, we need to address stress reduction, which is an underrated factor. When we are stressed, many of us lose our sense of our hunger cues (namely the hunger ghrelin hormone and satiety leptin hormone) and over-indulge in junk foods. Consequently, our digestive system takes a bad hit. And when our digestive system is inundated with heavy assaults of processed food and the hydrogenated fats and sugar that accompany them, inflammation build in our gut linings. With the presence of gut inflammations, the physical and biochemical connections between gut and brain are adversely affected. The daunting thing is, by the time one may be diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, the mental decline from the gut assault has been ongoing for years.

A diet to help keep stress at bay

Unfortunately, the reality is that stress is inevitable in our modern life. Besides emotional support from friends and family, meditation, exercise, early sleep, and a holiday, how else can we keep stress at bay? The key is a diet rich in the following nutrients:
  • Vitamin C
    • It helps to make dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin neurotransmitters that stabilize moods and prevent depression.
    • Found in foods such as citric fruits, papayas, berries, broccoli, and carrots.
  • Vitamin B6
    • Deficiency in Vitamin B6 can lead to depression.
    • Foods rich in this vitamin are cod liver, cod, wheat germ, sunflower seeds, banana, and spinach.
  • Vitamin D
    • Deficiency can lead to depression. An uptake of it can help with the production of the happy serotonin neurotransmitter.
    • Best sourced from the sun, but can also be found in smaller amounts in mackerel, salmon, grass-fed butter, and mushrooms.
  • Omega 3
    • When in ample supply in forms of EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), an individual is found to be less likely to suffer from depression.
    • Best sourced from chia seeds, flaxseeds, wild salmon, herring and sardines as well as high-quality fish oil supplements.
  • Magnesium
    • Known as an “anti-stress” mineral, it can reduce anxiety.
    • Rich in pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, spinach, swiss chard, cacao, kelp, wild salmon, and Epsom salt.
And most importantly, make sure you are operating on a “rest and digest” mode so that your happy-mood-inducing nutrients (as discussed above) are optimally absorbed. Without being in this relaxed state, we’re unable to produce the gastric juices that properly absorb our food. And this means we aren’t absorbing the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals needed to support a healthy body and brain.  


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About the Author

Cecilia Yu, founder of Vitamin L, is a certified culinary nutritionist and health coach. Through healing her daughter from asthma holistically, her core mission is to empower others to select and cook nutritious food to prevent and heal common ailments and chronic illnesses. Creating delicious recipes with anti-inflammatory and immunity building ingredients is her specialty. For meal plans, cooking classes and advisory, and other nutrition tips contact her on Facebook at CeciliaADoseofVitaminL or
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