getting gutsy: how gratitude impacts the gut-brain connection
There is no doubt that at some point, you have used terms like “trust your gut” or “I feel it in my gut.” Maybe you’ve felt that “sinking feeling” in your gut or experienced butterflies when excited. These sensations are a result of your enteric nervous system (or ENS), which is a network of more than 100 million nerve cells located in the gastrointestinal tract, often called the second brain.
This “second brain” located in your gut is in constant communication with your main brain and vice versa. This connection, known as the gut-brain axis, can have a direct impact on your gut and your overall health–especially when you focus your mind on gratitude. But how?
HAPPINESS BEGINS IN THE GUT
Around 90% of the serotonin found in your body is produced in the digestive tract and not the brain, like so many commonly believe. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter and hormone that influences mood, sex drive, sleep, and pain. When it comes to your gut, serotonin is essential for proper gut motility (read: regularity) and appetite balance.
There are specific ways that you can (and should) feed the friendly bacteria in your gut (which is needed to produce serotonin) with the right probiotics and diet. But thanks to the gut-brain axis, you can also influence the balance of your microbiome by practicing gratitude.
When we practice gratitude it helps to increase the production of serotonin in the body. More serotonin means a more efficient digestive system and a healthier, happier you.
GRATITUDE DECREASES STRESS
Stress has a direct impact on the proper functioning of your gut. When a person experiences chronic stress they are experiencing what is known as the “fight or flight” response. This state shuts down all non-essential functions, like digestion which requires a lot of energy. This is one reason why a person who is undergoing stress may experience digestive side effects like constipation, diarrhea or stomach aches.
When we practice gratitude, it helps to initiate the relaxation response in the body which is also known as the “rest and digest” state. The nickname really says it all. When we are able to relax and generate the positive emotions associated with gratitude, the body’s digestive system can get back on track.
BENEFITS THAT GO BEYOND THE GUT
There have been countless studies on the benefits of gratitude for your overall health. Some of the most well documented include:
Better brain health
Improved sleep quality
Lowered inflammation and pain
Decreased anxiety and depression
Improved heart health
Greater mental strength & resilience
THE SURPRISING WAYS TO PRACTICE GRATITUDE
So now you may be asking what is the best way to practice gratitude to get all of these benefits?
More recent studies on gratitude have revealed that the popular gratitude lists and journals most often recommended may not be the most effective method of practice.
It was found that when a person receives thanks, for example, in the form of a letter or a genuine expression of gratitude, that they experienced the most potent benefits and effects of gratitude. In addition, the act of reading or watching a story about someone else receiving help and experiencing sympathy or empathy, also had a stronger impact on an individual and their level of gratitude, when compared to other practices. It’s worth noting however, that the stories in these cases must be genuine (not recreated or fictional for example).
A DIFFERENT KIND OF GRATITUDE CHALLENGE
While there are no lists or journals required for this one, it may not work to just sit around waiting to be thanked.
With that being said, I challenge you to think about a time when you genuinely received thanks or gratitude. Whether it was from a loved one, at work, or from a friend. Conjure up that memory and sit for 1-3 minutes thinking about and feeling what it felt like in that moment to be thanked. You can write notes about the experience if that helps you to remember those feelings and help bring them back to the forefront of your mind. Doing this for just 1 minute, once a day, has been proven to have benefits for your mind, body and of course, your gut!
If this doesn’t work for you, try to find or seek stories about others who have received help or are actively receiving help. Find one that you relate to. Whether it is a book, movie or podcast, watch, read or listen and take in the feelings that come with the experiences you’re taking in secondhand.
Bonus points: the next time you have the opportunity, remember that by giving genuine thanks to another person–you are actively helping to better their health!