Man with good gut-mind-connection resting on hammock

The Gut-Mind Connection: Ways to Calm an Upset Stomach

Ever wonder why a worried thought often summons those proverbial "butterflies" in your stomach? Your brain and gut are intrinsically connected, and it doesn’t take long for an unsettled mind to result in some unpleasant digestive consequences. They don’t call it "nervous stomach" for nothing!

While many of us tend to think of the gut and the brain as separate systems, a large body of scientific research indicates that the two are intimately linked. There’s a two-way highway between your brain and your intestinal tract, in which chemicals produced at either destination can travel and affect one another, explained Life Extension’s Education Specialist, Dr. Crystal M. Gossard, DCN.

What’s more, this gut-brain interaction explains how your microbiome (which includes the trillions of microorganisms that reside in your intestinal tract) can secrete many kinds of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with each other. As Dr. Gossard pointed out, more than 90 percent of the body’s serotonin supply comes from the gut. "Serotonin can act both as a neurotransmitter or a hormone, affecting both how we feel and digestion, which indicates the strong connection between these two systems," she added.

So, can you use this brain-gut connection to ease an upset stomach? Absolutely! Here are some gut-brain-friendly tips you can follow to get you started.

How do you calm an anxious stomach?

Woman mindfully breathing to comfort stomach

Whether we’re thinking about our health (or that of our loved ones), our financial responsibilities, what to cook for dinner, or approaching deadlines—these busy thoughts consume our attention and can lead to stress and anxiety, resulting in an upset stomach.

When you start to feel overwhelmed and your stomach isn’t happy: breathe. It may seem counterintuitive to take a deep breath when your stomach is upset, but if your overthinking mind is making you feel unwell, belly breathing will go a long way.

Taking a deep breath brings awareness to the present moment, rather than worries about the future or ruminating about something that happened in the past—it’s like rebooting your brain. "When we focus our attention on the past or the future, it creates a sense of longing that puts stress on the mind and trickles down to the gut," Dr. Gossard said.

Plus, diaphragmatic breathing, which is intentionally breathing with your belly so that it moves up and down as you inhale and exhale, can help reduce stress-induced intestinal symptoms. That’s because this form of focused breathing encourages the body to relax and distracts and quiets the mind, according to Dr. Gossard. "When you take a deep breath, it activates the parasympathetic system, which is your body’s relaxation response and stimulates organs like the stomach and the intestines," she explained.

How to belly breathe

Woman with hand on chest and belly breathing

The next time pestering thoughts start affecting your stomach, try diaphragmatic breathing. Not sure how to do this correctly? Here’s a quick guide.

  1. Close your eyes and sit or lie down somewhere you’re comfortable.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other one on your belly. Focus on the hand on your belly, it should raise and lower as you inhale and exhale (the hand on your chest shouldn’t move).
  3. Breathe in deeply through your nose, filling your belly with air.
  4. Briefly hold your breath (for two to three seconds). This has been suggested to activate your vagus nerve, which may exert positive effects on digestive health, inflammatory and immune responses and mental health, among other benefits.
  5. Slowly and steadily exhale through your mouth for five to six seconds, feeling your belly contract as it releases all the air.
  6. Repeat as necessary.

How belly breathing helps your whole body

Belly breathing is a great go-to technique that helps alleviate an upset stomach. But that’s not the only reason to belly breathe. Here are some of the other potential mental and physical benefits:

  • Improves focus and concentration
  • Helps lower heart rate and blood pressure
  • Relaxes muscles, decreasing muscle tension
  • You get more oxygenated blood flowing from head-to-toe
  • Supports the immune response
  • Balances your metabolism, improving overall digestive health

How do I improve my mind-gut connection?

Woman with mindful diet for gut-brain-lifestyle

Mindful breathing might help when you’re in the midst of a stressed stomach, but this practice is only one part of maintaining a healthy relationship between your mind and gut. Creating sustainable habits that add up to an overall healthy lifestyle is key.

The best place to start is with a holistic approach to wellness that nourishes your body and mind. Here are Dr. Gossard’s tips:

1. Mind your diet

What you eat has a direct impact on your digestive health and overall wellbeing. "Adding more healthy sources of fiber like veggies and fruits, and probiotic-rich foods—like yogurt or kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi—has a positive impact on overall digestive health," Dr. Gossard said. Kale and bok choy may need some getting used to, but they are rich in nutrients that other foods like cheeseburgers and fried foods lack.

2. Meditate—for your gut’s sake

In case you needed yet one more reason to start meditating, here’s a good one: it helps calm a nervous stomach. Whether you choose to do it your way or to follow a guided meditation, this practice allows you to enter a relaxed state of mind that transcends to your body.

"Our hectic schedules trigger the release of stress hormones like cortisol in the body, which can cause digestive discomforts and even lead to more serious health concerns," noted Dr. Gossard. Meditation helps you build a calm mind, which, thanks to that gut-brain connection, benefits your digestive (and overall) health as well.

3. Gut health and sleep

Getting quality, uninterrupted sleep doesn’t just improve your mood, memory and attention span—it also keeps your gut healthy. When we don’t get enough sleep, it can throw off leptin levels, a hormone that regulates appetite, and we may find ourselves eating more throughout the day. This can lead to changes in mood, bloating and other digestive discomforts, explained Dr. Gossard.

Remember, a happy mind means a happy gut, which results in a happy and healthy life. How’s that for a not-so-vicious cycle?

Be sure to tune in to the Live Foreverish podcast for a conversation between Dr. Gossard and Dr. Michael A. Smith, MD, about how to heal your gut and boost your mood.

About the Author: Jessica Monge has a bachelor's degree in biological sciences & neuroscience and a master's degree in comparative studies and related languages from Florida Atlantic University. She worked as a tutor, freelance writer and editor before joining Life Extension, where she is currently a Digital Content Writer.