A gut full of emotion: the gut-brain connection explained - McDowell's Herbal Treatments

A troubled gut sends signals to the brain and a troubled brain sends signals to the gut! The interplay is uniquely human and involves intricate yet complicated biochemical steps involving the Vagus nerve sending messages between the gut and the brain...

stock gut brain SMLL

When treating gut issues there is often an associated neurological symptom, most commonly anxiety and/or depression. A person with an irritable bowel for example may have symptoms of anxiousness and low resilience to stress.
A common scenario building on the gut-brain connection that many people can relate to is the feeling of anxiousness before a corporate presentation or an important event, which also may cause nausea or diarrhoea or intense pain due to the exposure of a stressful situation.

A person who leads a fast-paced and high stress lifestyle may have these effects regularly and it has become acceptable to have impulsive or changing gut function. It is often not until the mind begins to be notably affected with mood changes affecting a person’s daily activities that the person identifies being unwell.
The stress response in our body causes changes to muscular contractions as well as blood supply to our intestines and also glucose supply to the brain, so it is relevant to connect these factors influencing a person’s health.

The Vagus Nerve

We all have a vagus nerve in our bodies. It is our 10th cranial nerve running from the brain stem, through the neck and the thorax down to the abdomen. This nerve also represents the main component of our parasympathetic nervous system which modulates many bodily functions such as mood, immune response, digestion and heart rate.

This is a very important link with our brain and gut as it establishes the connection by sending information to the brain about what is going on in the gut! Clever, isn’t it?!

Should there be a breakdown in this communication, it is possible that the nerve may have lost vagal tone – a term used to describe loss of activity of this nerve. This lack of tone may also affect the heart muscle and some people with anxiety may experience heart palpitations linking this function.

Gut Microbiome

Many studies have linked poor gut bacteria balance with depression, anxiety due to its affects on the emotional area with our brain in response to feedback from the vagus nerve mentioned above. It has been identified in research that specific microbiome interacts with our enteric nervous system and our brain to assist with regulation and harmony within our bodies own ecosystem.

The Emotional Reaction

Emotions are felt in our gut, such as sadness, fear, anger, nervousness and joy. These all stem from a group of cells in our gut described as neurons which form the enteric nervous system. The brain communicates with the enteric nervous system to receive information via the bloodstream after it has been processed in the gut.


It is important to understand that Serotonin production in the gut assists with gut wall contractions which aids digestion, bowel function and elimination, estimated at 90% and the remaining 10% is produced in our nervous system.
This serotonin produced in the gut does NOT supply the brain’s level of Serotonin, the brain has its own mechanisms of production. However, the gut microbiome has an influence on the production of natural neurotransmitters that can affect our mood – namely: serotonin, gaba, dopamine and acetylcholine.

How McDowells Herbal can influence the body processes naturally to bring about balance:

Increasing vagal tone to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which relaxes the body’s response and helps us navigate and manage the stress response.

Herbal Medicine:

  • Nervines – strengthen and nourish the nervous system
  • Adaptogens – help resistance to the variety of stressors impacting normal function and supporting recovery and health of the adrenal gland
  • Anxiolytics – help reduce anxiety and its effects
  • Sedatives – help relax and induce sleep
  • Cardiotonic – strengthen heart function


  • Wholefoods only – avoiding processed and refined foods
  • Avoid refined sugars and products with high sugar and glucose content
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Avoid caffeinated drinks and food
  • Lower saturated fats and foods containing trans fats e.g. margarine
  • Increase vegetables to 5 serves daily (1 serve = 1 cup)
  • Consume fermented foods and pre-biotic foods for your gut microbiome health e.g. sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, flaxseeds, psyllium, green banana starch, slippery elm
  • Probiotic supplementation
  • Omega oils found in fish can support vagal activity and mind health


  • Try a cold shower for 20-30 seconds after your usual hot shower, this activates the vagus nerve
  • Having cold swings or splashing your skin or face with iced water
  • Deep breathing exercises to open the lungs and the heart to stimulate the nerve pathway e.g. if you are feeling wired from stress – sit and breathe in deeply for 6 breathes, filling your abdomen with air and expelling with your mouth open or nostrils, slowly push out the bad energy from the body with each out breath and allow yourself to let go of the tension
  • Singing, humming, chanting all help too, so give it a go

Regular exercise can stimulate vagal tone and help mood and help supply oxygen to cells. This can include yoga practice with gentle movements and meditation such as Yoga Nidra and moderate levels of walking. Support gastrointestinal function as it relates to the individual health needs of the person. This may be constipation, diarrhoea, irritable bowel, bloating, abdominal pain, diagnosed inflammatory bowel disease, ceoliac disease or other illness.

Herbal Medicine

  • Anti-inflammatory – reduce inflammation and restore a balanced response and help lower pain
  • Mucolytic -
  • Anti-spasmodic – reduce cramping and colic type pain and bowel irritabilitiy
  • Astringent – provide mucous membrane support of the intestinal lining and help improve contraction of tissue
  • Antibacterial / Antiparasitic / Antimicrobial
  • Bitters – stimulate digestive function and help absorption of nutrients from foods
  • PH balancing – promote acid balance for improved digestion and help lower signs and symptoms of heartburn
  • Hepatic & cholagogue – support liver and gallbladder function for optimum assimilation of foods and the process of detoxification and elimination along with hormone regulation and overall body functions
  • Anti-emetic – help reduce feeling of nausea and onset vomiting
  • Carminative – help promote relaxation of the intestinal sphincter muscles and relieve flatulence and colic tendencies
  • Depurative – promote toxin elimination and help to improve bodily functions via purification of the blood.


Similar to supporting the nervous system and mind, but may be with tailored or specific need relating to symptoms and identified triggers.
Examples include: Gluten free, Dairy free, Anti-inflammatory, Microbiome-enhancing foods.


  • Stress reducing techniques for relaxation similar to support suggested in point 1.
  • Exercise regularly to help eliminate toxins and improve bowel motility as needed, with additional muscle tone, mood enhancement and oxygenation to cells and improve sleep and energy levels.
  • Consume meals whilst sitting and allow time for digestion.
  • Try fasting overnight for a minimum of 12 hours to begin and also between meals.
  • Surround yourself with people you love and create happy relationships.
  • Body & Mind – a wholistic approach to health

Without understanding the connections of body and mind with our symptoms, how can the human body truly heal?

At McDowells Herbal we are trained to support the whole person and we combine our experience with modern health science & traditional knowledge to bring about change and ultimately wellness.
By connecting systems, lifestyle, nutrition and natural biochemistry we are able to support you wholistically.
We aim to help you begin to further understand the psychological connection with the physical body.
Once this connection of mind and body is made, we are then able to accept healing on many levels and reach health goals for the longer term.

Have a question? Contact McDowell's Herbal Treatments

Get in Touch

We are open Monday to Friday 9 am to 5 pm. AEST. You can also contact us by phone or email.

02 6331 3937
+61 2 6331 3937(Int)

McDowell's staff Herbalists can not diagnose your disease or illness. What they can do is offer a herbal program to assist with healing, after you have had advice from your doctor or specialist. If you have unexplained pain or symptoms, seek medical advice.

EMAIL info@mcdowellsherbal.com  |  PHONE 02 6331 3937  |  INTERNATIONAL +61 2 6331 3937