The Gut-Brain Axis: How Self-Care is Important for Our Health

November 10, 2020
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By now, it should come as no surprise to you that the gut microbiota is involved in a plethora of our bodily functions and experiences, and our brain is no exception; known as the gut brain axis, the two way relationship between our gut microbiome and our brain is responsible for impacting both our mental and physical health. For example, there is evidence that the gut-brain axis influences our ability to control our stress levels. Accordingly, disruptions to our gut microbiota have been linked with several stress-related conditions such as anxiety, depression, and IBS. On the mental health side of things, it is well documented that pain and discomfort in the realm of our physical body (such as struggling with ulcerative colitis or chronic pain) can cause intense mental distress and further negatively affect our physical health. 

This is something I know well; beginning March of my freshman year of college, my health began to take a turn. What began as stomach aches at dinner time turned into intense stomach pain any time I ate, nausea that would last for days, and worsened anxiety about the state of my body. After a flurry of tests, medication, and other appointments lasting into the fall, it was determined that I had something called functional dyspepsia. For me, this meant that while nothing was specifically wrong with my body, when I experienced heightened stress it interfered with my ability to digest food properly, leading to intense stomach pain. It also meant that I had to stop eating certain foods, in particular, anything with cayenne pepper or caffeine (the latter of which was devastating to a college student). 

During this time, I saw for the first time how my physical pain caused me intense mental pain. Although I was always an anxious person, my anxiety and depression worsened as I wondered if I would always feel so miserable, or if I would have to change so much of my lifestyle just to be comfortable. Worse yet, I felt angry and sad because it seemed to me that I was the only one that had restrictions for their health. As expected, my pain did not last forever. From what was arguably one of my lowest points came clarity and a new perspective on health and wellness. I began to understand that the lifestyle choices I made had real, direct impacts on how I felt, specifically the choices I made for my mental health. Because stress and anxiety are the root of functional dyspepsia, I had to learn how to really take care of my mind. Thus began my journey to practice self care.

When many people hear “self care” they may think of going to the spa, or a facemask. And while all of these things certainly act as self care, they are not a complete picture. Thus, I propose a new definition; instead of thinking of self care as self-indulgent, we can think of self care as the necessary actions and behaviors that you need to nourish your body and mind to be a happy, healthy, productive person. Self care is not something you have to earn, rather, it is about responsibly taking care of the functions you need to live and thrive. Self care looks different for everyone, and the things you need to thrive may change over time. That being said, I’ve learned a few things along the way in my self care journey, so, without further ado, here are 7 tips to practice effective self care. 

  1. Change your environment: 

My first suggestion for practicing self care is to change your environment. If you are sitting in a crowded room, find some space to be alone. On the other hand, if you have been locked away in your room working all day, give yourself time to check in with roommates, friends, or family. This could also mean cleaning up your room and making it cozy with a candle. One of the most effective changes for me is getting outside and breathing in some fresh air. Our environment has a huge impact on our mood and productivity, so make sure you are spending your time in a place that positively affects you.

  1. Take care of the rest of your body: 

When I was most stressed about my stomach pain, I often focused solely on that, neglecting to appreciate and care for the rest of my body. This is where the more stereotypical “self care” comes into play; go exercise, paint your nails, take a nice long shower, or whatever else will make the rest of your body feel good. 

  1. Listen to your body and give it what it needs: 

Some of the best advice I learned is that when dealing with issues of mental or physical health, it’s important to treat yourself like a younger sibling or friend. Be gentle with yourself, and do not deny yourself the grace and patience that you would readily offer someone else. For example, if a friend told you they wanted to take a break from working and look on their social media for a bit, would you guilt them out of it? Of course not! So why would you do the same to yourself?

  1. Use journaling or another activity to get out of your head: 

Usually when I am the most stressed it is because I have a million thoughts swirling around my head. The mental chaos is enough to make anyone feel on-edge or stressed. To address this, I have found that writing a list of every repetitive thought I’m having to get them out of my head and onto paper is actually quite helpful. If you are struggling with your health like I was, writing down all your worries, sensations, and other thoughts about your health can help you step back and keep things in perspective. If journaling isn’t your thing, try running, going for a walk with your dog, or some other activity that is distracting and pulls you out of that thought spiral. 

  1. Take a good look at the food you are eating: 

According to one study on the gut microbiome, “diet is one of the most important modifying factors of the microbiota-gut-brain axis.” Thus, sometimes the most simple way to practice self care is to nourish our bodies with good food. Now, your definition of good can mean whatever you want it to: for me, it means eating lots of fresh produce and other foods that make me feel sustained. Things like fresh pears, veggie pesto pasta, or fresh bread can make a world of difference in my mood. Other times good food means a meal from my favorite restaurant or making my favorite kind of mac n cheese. It’s all about balance and giving your body food that makes you feel good. 

  1. Watch your mindset:

 In terms of mental health, this can be one of the hardest yet most important changes to make. Watching your mindset is the act of consciously pausing and changing your thought process, something a lot easier said than done. Relating to health issues, this can be done by reminding yourself that your body will not feel this way forever. It also means accepting that some days will just be bad, but it doesn’t mean the next day will be. Additionally, it means keeping things in perspective; it’s not your fault that you feel the way that you do, and just because you have health issues doesn’t mean you can’t still be a healthy person. 

As I hope you can see by now, self care is so much more than a facemask every once in a while. With the fate of our mental and physical health at stake, practicing self-care is a daily exercise in protecting the functions we need to live and thrive. We can all take simple steps to begin practicing self-care and incorporating it into every aspect of our lives. Our gut and our mind will thank us for it!

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