Heal Your Gut, Heal Your Mind: The Brain-Gut Connection

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Stylewars 800X675 2 | Heal Your Gut, Heal Your Mind: The Brain-Gut Connection

Understanding the brain-gut connection could be the cure for depression, eating disorders, ADHD, anxiety and everything in between…

Ever wonder why you get butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous?

Answer: The brain-gut connection.

When you experience those butterflies in your stomach, your brain sends messages to your gut to do flips…

The “brain-gut” connection is essentially what it sounds like: Your gut and brain are directly linked.

Your vagus nerve (the nerve responsible for a lot of your thinking and brain function) is connected from the top of your stomach, all the way up to your brain.

In addition, about 95% of your serotonin (“feel good” brain chemical) is produced in your gastrointestinal tract.

Couple this with the fact that your GI tract is lined with more than a hundred million nerve cells, and it makes sense: the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.

In short:

When your gut is unhappy or stressed…your brain is unhappy or stressed.

Inflammation in your gut sends signals to your brain, causing a similar response (inflammation, stress and a host of other mindset and mental health issues).

An unhealthy or stressed gut often results in things like:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety
  • Sensory processing
  • Autism
  • OCD
  • Depression and low mood
  • Foggy brain
  • Migraines and headaches
  • Personality and behavioral disorders
  • Alzheimers
  • Schizophrenia
  • Etc.

Bottom line: If you have an unhealthy gut, your brain function gets thrown off. And, if you have an unhealthy brain (i.e. stressed), your gut function gets thrown off. 



“You’re trying to tell me that my child’s ADD is a sign that he has an unhealthy gut?!”


I’ve had migraines my whole life—and my mom gets them too. It doesn’t have anything to do with what I eat.”


“I struggle with anxiety and I don’t like taking meds, but they are the only thing that help me to get it under control…I don’t think anything will every change that”

For years, we’ve come to see the body and mind as separate entities. Psycho-behavioral function and holistic health have often been ignored in health care with resulting deficits in treatment quality and outcomes.

  • Step into most psychologists’ offices, and he or she rarely (if ever) ask what you’ve been eating or when your last bowel movement was.
  • A psychiatrist is more apt to prescribe you Lexapro for anxiety, over discussing integrating probiotics or fermented foods into your diet.
  • Your child’s doc knows exactly what to do for ADD/ADHD—a low dose of Ritalin—over fresh fruits, veggies, water and unprocessed foods.
  • And life coaches and motivational speakers talk more about the “power of positive thinking” (which IS very powerful) and working harder (and smarter) rarely (if ever) mentioning your daily nutrition and low-stress lifestyle habits. 

The mind is treated separately from the body.

However, more and more research and case studies begin to point to the fact that, yes, indeed, our brain function and health is directly connected to our gut health.



Yes, it’s true.

A recent study published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine (Schnorr & Bachner, Sept. 2016) found that:

  • Probiotic supplementation reduced stress and anxiety (in both mice and in humans)
  • Inability to digest carbohydrates was linked to clinical disorders such as depression, hyperactivity, and autism (Carbohydrate indigestion is often related to bacterial overgrowth in the gut)

Concluding that medical and mental health professionals should use these insights to develop informed models of therapy for the treatment of anxiety and other mental health symptoms in practice. The researchers’ prescription? Simple: rest, digest, exercise, practice mindful relaxation, and eat a nutritionally rich and varied diet.

And Yale is not the only one singing this tune.

Another study found that patients with major depressive disorder had a larger amount of bad bacteria in their gut vs. healthy individuals;

Nine out of 10 individuals with Autism suffer from gastrointestinal problems such as inflammatory bowel disease and “leaky gut” according to another study.

And one more of, published in Pediatrics (2013), studied 742,939 children and found that those children with ADHD had a dramatic increased prevalence of constipation almost threefold higher than those without ADHD. Fecal incontinence was sixfold higher in the ADHD group, and visits to the doctor because of bowel issues was also dramatically increased in kids with ADHD. Importantly, these findings did not differ depending on whether or not the children with ADHD were on medication.

Bottom Line: There is more to our brain health than “just in our mind.”


What does an “unhealthy gut “even mean?

In essence: “Leaky gut” is often a huge contributing factor to mental health breakdown.

Thanks to wear and tear from a mix and combination of gut stressors, including:

  • Processed food
  • Bottle and formula feeding as kids
  • C-section babies, sugar (and hidden sugar) in our diets
  • Erratic or disordered eating behaviors
  • Antibiotics and medications
  • Illnesses
  • Environmental toxic exposures, and more

…Our guts take a hit.

Over time, this leads to a wear and tear on our gut linings, which then leads to a “leaky” (open gut lining)….

Leading to digestive issues (from constipation, gas and bloating to allergies, brain fog and skin breakouts)…

Which then leads to inflammation in the body (as food particles leak into our bloodstream—outside the digestive tract). Our body sees food in the bloodstream as “outside invaders” and ends up attacking itself (causing an inflammatory response, which impacts our whole body—brain included).

In addition to a “leaky gut,” an unhealthy “gut flora” (i.e. bad bacteria housed in our guts from the same triggers), leads to inflammation in our guts themselves, meaning: More inflammation signals directly to our brain.

Once the “straw” breaks the camel’s back with our gut health situation, it takes some dedicated gut-support and healing to restore your gut AND brain function to a healthy thriving state of being.


A “healthy” gut (and mind) can be won!

We don’t know what we don’t know…until we know it.

And once you realize you (or your child) have had an unhealthy gut, a targeted “gut-healing” approach to healing both the body and brain could be just the medicine the doctor really should have ordered.


It’s always recommended that for your individual needs, you seek guidance from a functional medicine, nutritionist or other health professional who understands the brain-gut connection.

This professional can help you determine the primary presentation of gut imbalances (from bacterial overgrowth to parasites, poor methylation, large intestine dysfunction, low stomach acid and more).



A general first-line of defense protocol includes:

Removing Triggers and Stressors. This one may be obvious, but eliminating known gut triggers is a first line of defense to let your gut heal. A 30-90 day protocol of no/minimal grains, sugars, conventional dairy, alcohol and processed foods is a must if you want to see any positive traction for healing.

Taking Probiotics. Arm your imbalanced gut with some good bacteria. Choose a formula with MULTIPLE strains to ensure you get a variety of healthy bacteria to fight off the bad guys in your gut.

Don’t Forget Pre-biotics. In addition Pre-biotics help you absorb your probiotics. A supplemental dose of 4/g day will do it; or you can try to incorporate natural pre-biotic foods into your daily diet, including bananas, sweet potatoes (with skin), avocados,, onions, garlic, dandelion greens, leeks and asparagus

Add In Some Helpers. Digestive enzymes and HCL (hydrochloric acid) can both be highly beneficial for enhancing a healthy gut. These are natural components that SHOULD be found in your gut already, however when our guts have been challenged to deal with a leaky situation and unhealthy bacteria, we become depleted in both digestive enzymes and natural stomach acid. Boost yours by trying a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a shot glass of water before your meals (or lemon water or a supplemental form), as well as 1-2 digestive enzymes with meals to help break food down.

Stress Less. Making a concerted effort to de-stress (your lifestyle and your mind) can play a huge impact on your brain-gut connection. Sometimes the simplest things as: Ensuring we are getting enough sleep, moderate exercise (not too much or not too little), and taking time-outs from work for rest and play can greatly influence the effectiveness of all gut-healing therapies.



You’re all bought in to the idea that your TOTAL body health can impact your brain AND gut…but what if your kid is not?

After all: Is taking away his goldfish or chicken nuggets REALLY necessary?

Hate to break it to you, but our kids need healthier food than even we do (hello, they are growing and developing).

Keeping an 80/20 balanced perspective (after all, life happens), transitioning their diets to REAL FOOD (food they and we were designed to eat from the beginning of time—meat, fish, nuts, seeds, veggies, fruits, water, healthy fats and oils), is the medicine they need—just as much as you.

How to do it?

For this reason, I created my 28-Day Family Fuel Program: a complete 28 day guided experience in helping your kids and family transition to real food in a way that is delicious, do-able and does NOT confine you to living in a bubble.

Over the course of 28 days, you will be guided in helping your family build a solid foundation of sustainable nutrition habits together (kids and all). This program is available in both in-person and distance formats and includes:

  • Fuel Nutrition Guide & Step-by-Step Manual—all you need to know about “real food” and making healthy eating easy and sustainable
  • 28 Days of Meal Templates and Meal Ideas
  • Kid-Approved Recipe Book (More than 100 easy, delicious recipes made in 20-minutes or less. Kid tasted and approved!)
  • Optional 1:1 sessions, booked with Dr. Lauryn (grocery store tour, pantry sweep, simple meal prep sessions, individualized nutrient deficiency and health evaluation)
  • Games & Activities your kids will love and that make healthy eating FUN.
  • Improve gut health, energy levels, healthy weight management, blood sugar balance, stress and more
  • Less stress in the kitchen
  • Sustainability for healthy eating post-program (no diets here)

Interested? Contact me here or send an email to [email protected] for more information (available for Distance and Austin clients). 

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