Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC is a clinician, Naturopathic Practitioner, clinical researcher, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport. His work has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals and he speaks at conferences around the globe.
What The Mind-Body Connection Can Explain About Your Health and Well-being
There’s a feedback loop between your emotional and physical state, known as the mind-body connection.
Your brain and your gut communicate through the vagus nerve, the main nerve of your parasympathetic nervous system.
Your gut health has a big impact on your mental and emotional state, highlighted by the high anxiety rates seen in conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Nervous system dysregulation and chronic stress can lead to physical health challenges, such as brain fog, heart disease, and digestive distress.
Gut-healing therapies like probiotics and an anti-inflammatory diet can benefit mood by restoring the balance of the microbiome.
Mind-body therapies like biofeedback, mindfulness meditation, and yoga can all positively impact your mental and physical state.
If you’ve ever found yourself feeling nauseated before a big performance or noticed that being stuck in a crowd made your heart race, you’ve already experienced the mind-body connection.
The concept of the mind-body connection may sound to some like a “woo-woo” or “new age” idea, but it’s rooted in scientific evidence that shows cause and effect flowing in both directions. In reality, our minds (or brains) are not only connected to seemingly distant systems of the body, but part of the body as a whole, making the connections and possible impacts more concrete than you might imagine.
Our brains are the main control center both for conscious thoughts and actions and all the functions our bodies perform to keep us alive (digestive processes, sleep, cardiovascular function, cell repair, breathing, etc). So imagine the possibilities of connecting the conscious and subconscious through mind-body practices to improve your overall health and well-being.
The good news is that a growing body of research investigating the effects of mind-body practices is bearing fruit and improving people’s lives. Interventions like biofeedback, mindfulness meditation, and deep breathing have been shown to improve quality of life across various groups facing a number of physical health and mental health challenges.
Let’s dig into the mechanisms of the mind-body connection and go over a few of the most studied techniques — both guided and through self-care — that have been shown to improve physical and emotional well-being.
What is the Mind-Body Connection?
The mind-body connection represents the various ways in which our mental and emotional health impacts our physical health, and vice versa.
If you’ve ever gone through a bout of chronic pain, for example a back injury that impacts your sleep and ability to do the things you love to do, you might have also found that your ability to cope with life’s normal challenges dramatically decreased. A simple traffic jam or misunderstanding at work might have set you off because your perception of suffering was so dramatically increased due to your constant, low-level pain and the accompanying stress that went with it.
The reverse can also occur, in which you’ve experienced emotional pain due to a fight with a spouse or a death in the family, and you become more acutely aware of that nagging pain in your back or your knee, or maybe you develop chest pains. Perhaps you can’t fall asleep at night, or you have far more trouble getting out of bed in the morning. You might even find that foods you normally eat are causing heartburn or gas, seemingly out of nowhere. That’s your brain’s stress response affecting you physically.
To simplify our definitions, I’ll be using the words “mind” and “brain” interchangeably going forward. The scientific community is aware of various connections between:
Psychological stress and a wide variety of body systems 
A 2021 statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) concluded that negative psychological factors such as depression, anxiety, stress, pessimism, anger, and social isolation can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
In contrast, positive psychological factors such as optimism, sense of purpose, mindfulness, and psychological well-being can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and improve cardiovascular health . But heart health isn’t the only thing that benefits from a happy, healthy mind, as the brain also has an intimate relationship with the digestive system.
The Gut-Brain Connection
The gut-brain connection is very real, and messages travel in both directions. Think of it this way: your intestines are like your second brain (in fact, that’s a nickname for the enteric nervous system, which is contained in your gut). If you think about it, your intestines even resemble your brain. This might be because during early fetal development, your gut and your brain both develop from the same clump of cells.
Communication between the brain and gut occurs via biochemical signals sent along the vagus nerve . The gut produces a huge percentage of the neurotransmitters our brains need to function properly and sends them to the brain via the vagus nerve.
These neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) regulate things like appetite control, pain sensations, mood, memory, and much more . We know that patients who suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders often exhibit IBS symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, and constipation, highlighting the close connection between the body and mind .
We also know that SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, aka most antidepressant and anti-anxiety meds) impact digestive health because of the change in how the body absorbs serotonin (which is produced in the gut). Many people gain weight or experience digestive upset on SSRIs, demonstrating that to affect the brain is also to affect the gut .
Brain Fog and Gut Health
Brain fog is another (often not obvious) symptom of gut health issues. Studies have shown that imbalances in the gut ecosystem can alter brain function by producing neuroinflammation, an inflammatory response within the brain or spinal cord, which can eventually lead to nervous system dysregulation (NSD) [2, 8, 9, 10, 11].
Brain fog is common in those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity [12, 13, 14]. In both of these conditions, gluten consumption triggers an immune response that creates inflammation in the gut. The process that leads to brain fog unfolds in the same way as with gut imbalances.
Stress and Gut Health
Emotional or psychological stress has been shown to worsen irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), in part because it negatively affects your gut microbiota [15, 16]. It has even been shown that stress hormones can fuel the growth of potentially dangerous bacteria in the gut . Furthermore, imbalances in the gut microbiome can directly alter brain function, produce inflammation, and dysregulate vital communication between the gut and the brain [2, 11].
Stress (especially chronic stress) can also impact sleep quality, which can then affect your immune system, how your body functions, your ability to process information, and your gut health. Yes, this information folds in on itself because each of these mind-body connections is a feedback loop. Stress can affect sleep and gut health, while gut health can also impact sleep and stress, and round and round we go.
Fortunately, there are ways to put an end to this cycle, which I will get to in a moment. But first, let’s get into what a dysregulated brain looks like on a physical level.
Signs and Symptoms of Nervous System Dysregulation (NSD)
Nervous system dysregulation manifests as a collection of symptoms that result from repeated activation or extended conditions of stress on the nervous system . In other words, NSD is the physical, mental, behavioral, and emotional result of chronic stress.
Chronic stress is marked by the body’s inability to turn off the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response) and properly re-engage the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest setting where your vagus nerve is properly transmitting messages).
Some signs and symptoms of NSD include [18, 19, 20, 21, 22]:
Higher resting heart rates and lower heart rate variability (HRV)
Research suggests that NSD is predictive of metabolic syndrome, which is characterized by being overweight, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, and/or high fasting blood sugar, suggesting that poor metabolic health could be a sign of NSD .
Research in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic disorder, which could be thought of as subtypes of NSD, found elevated resting heart rate and abnormal breathing patterns compared to healthy controls [22, 24].
Mind-Body Therapies for Regulating Your Nervous System
Taking a holistic view of your health by acknowledging the mind-body connection will empower you to explore new healthcare modalities that address your well-being across all the systems of your body. The following techniques have been studied to help regulate the nervous system, which in turn could improve health conditions that fall into the mind-body continuum.
Biofeedback involves breathing at a pace of around four to seven breaths per minute (usually with a device for guidance) and has been shown to improve heart rate variability (HRV). One meta-analysis found that biofeedback combined with usual treatment (talk therapy and pharmacotherapy), significantly improved depression and anxiety compared to usual treatment alone .
Two other studies found that biofeedback improved HRV in healthy college students and people with acute brain injuries [26, 27].
Emotional Freedom Technique
Emotional freedom technique, sometimes referred to as “tapping,” combines certain elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and tapping of acupressure points to improve psychological distress. It has been shown to significantly improve anxiety .
The procedure typically involves thinking of a distressing memory and pairing it with a self-acceptance statement while tapping 5 to 10 times with the fingers on 12 acupressure points (located on the head, hand, and torso) .
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Meditation
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) therapy is a meditation therapy designed to help you train your attention, cultivate awareness, avoid ruminating thoughts, and keep you in the present moment.
It is shown to reduce the stress response during a stressful task in adults . It’s also being used for treating a variety of illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, cancer, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and skin and immune disorders .
In a study looking at the effects of mindfulness meditation, those who practiced mindfulness were shown to increase vagal tone and relaxation following stress . There is also benefit for those experiencing menopause, as mindfulness meditation was found to decrease symptoms, like hot flashes .
Another study found that mindfulness meditation can also have a positive effect on your immune system as it reduces inflammation, increases your immune defense, and protects against cell aging .
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that challenges counterproductive thoughts and emotions and attempts to change thinking patterns to alleviate mood disorders like anxiety and depression. CBT was studied alongside MBSR and showed equally positive results with regard to reducing stress response during stressful tasks .
Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong
Regular practitioners of yoga have been shown to have better HRV (a measure of parasympathetic activity) and a more effective response to stress than people with poor metabolic health and people who don’t regularly practice yoga . It’s also been shown that yoga improves disease activity and quality of life in IBD patients .
Yoga also offers benefits for those experiencing menopause. In a review of 12 research control trials (RCTs), it was found that regular yoga practice improved mood and sleep for most practitioners, and showed an improvement in musculoskeletal pain in a third of the studies .
Yoga may also have some carry-over of the health benefits associated with meditation, as yoga often incorporates meditative practices and poses. You can also combine a more intentional meditative practice with yoga, as these have a synergistic effect.
Tai Chi and Qigong are both Chinese martial arts that involve slow, controlled movements. Both practices have been shown to promote relaxation, decrease sympathetic output, improve menopausal symptoms, and generally support overall health and well-being, especially mental health [32, 36].
The positive effects go beyond mental well-being—it was found that both short and long-term mind-body exercises like these can actually change your brain. One study found that healthy participants who did activities like Tai Chi Chuan, Taiji, Qi gong, Baduanjin, Wuqinxi, and yoga, had a positive change to the structure, neural activity, and functional connectivity of different regions in their brains .
This is how important and powerful the mind-body connection is — your body’s habits can almost literally rewire your brain.
Massage, along with relaxation interventions as a whole,has been shown to improve relaxation and HRV in healthy women and improve anxiety and pain intensity in burn victims [38, 39]. Other relaxation techniques include simply resting without stimulation and listening to relaxing music. However, ice massage has been shown to better improve HRV and reduce heart rate in healthy males compared to resting .
Other Effective Techniques for Promoting Vagal Tone and Improving HRT
In addition to what I’ve already named, there are quite a few other avenues to help regulate your nervous system by toning the vagal nerve and improving HRT. Here are some to consider, in addition to those above :
Breathing exercises, including both slow breathing and the Wim Hof Method
Music therapy (singing, listening, learning, and performing music)
It’s important to note that, while these mind-body practices are a wonderful and scientifically effective way to begin addressing a number of health challenges, seeking regular medical care is also really important. Getting the proper diagnosis for a mental illness or other health condition could not only help you select the most effective mind-body modalities, but it could also allow you to get additional help through psychiatry or a behavioral health professional.
How Healing Your Gut Can Help Regulate Your Nervous System
I’ve already discussed at length the intricacies of the gut-brain connection. So it stands to reason (and is supported by tons of evidence) that improving your gut health is another way to improve your nervous system.
Specifically, probiotics may help regulate the nervous system by altering the gut microbiota. They have also been shown to improve depression [43, 44]. A meta-analysis found that probiotics improved sleep quality, memory, and helped modulate areas of the brain associated with attention and relaxation .
A low FODMAP diet may also regulate the nervous system. Research indicates that this type of diet can significantly improve anxiety, depression, happiness, and overall vitality in IBS patients . Another small study found that the low FODMAP diet improved inflammation, intestinal permeability, dysbiosis, anxiety/stress, and quality of life in IBS patients .
Take Control of Your Health and Wellbeing with Mind-Body Practices
Now that you have a more thorough understanding of the mind-body connection, start paying attention to how it plays out for you in your own life. You might begin to notice a pattern between stress at work and changes in your digestive health or sleep quality. You might become more aware of how physical pain affects your mental state.
Give one of the therapies I mentioned above a try, and find a guide, practitioner, or even an app to help you get started. We’re here to help too. Our team of experts can offer assistance and guidance in the best ways to regulate your nervous system based on your particular symptoms. Reach out to set up your consultation.
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