Stress & Mental Health – It’s not all in your head!

An interview with Dr. Karen Jensen, ND

By Jason Sebeslav, Owner, The Peanut Mill Natural Foods Market

Dr. Jensen received her degree in naturopathic medicine in 1988. She is a well-known lecturer, has written extensively for health magazines and is author of six books. The most recent is Three Brains: How the Heart, Brain and Gut Influence Mental Health and Identity. Dr. Jensen has retired from clinical practice but continues lecture and write on the naturopathic approach to wellness.

Jason Sebeslav (JS): In the last few years we’ve begun to learn more about the gut-brain connection, and the importance of the gut for promoting healthy cognition, mood and even stress regulation. The role of the gut is so important that it has been called the “second brain.” But in your book Three Brains, you propose that we actually have a third key player: the heart. Can you tell us more about the connection between these three communication systems?

Karen Jensen (KJ): The brain, heart, and gut obviously perform different physical functions, but they share many similarities and communicate via neurons, hormones and neurotransmitters. For example, the gut produces approximately 95% of the body’s serotonin and 50% of its dopamine, neurotransmitters which act on the nervous system and impact both the heart and the brain. The health of one brain impacts the two others, and vice versa.

JS: So how does the health of the gut and heart impact the brain?

KJ: Research shows that imbalances in gut bacteria are associated with learning disorders, dementias and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. The heart is also affected by gut bacteria, as probiotics (good bacteria) significantly reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension. Uncontrolled hypertension damages the brain’s structure and function, causing accelerated brain aging, decreased cognitive function and increased risk for dementia.

JS: In regard to our three brains, what’s actually happening when we feel stressed?

KJ: We all know how stress caused by work, relationships, financial worries, and emotional ups and downs can make us feel unwell. Stress causes an array of hormonal signals involving the adrenal glands, which are the main stress-reactive organs, as well as structures in the brain called the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. Even small changes in the release of stress hormones have significant effects on health. Chronically elevated stress hormones cause inflammation in the three brains; inflammation can lead to diverse gastrointestinal, mental health and cardiovascular disorders.

JS: Many people don’t quite believe that our emotional states can directly impact our physical states – but the three brain concept certainly seems to support this.

KJ: Yes. The three brains are not only involved in the physical ramifications of stress such as inflammation, but also the mental-emotional stress response. The brain analyzes and applies logic; the gut-brain teaches us to follow our instinct or “gut feeling”; and the heart-brain senses the world through emotions and feelings and guides us to “follow your heart.” For instance, the old-age wisdom that it’s possible to die of a broken heart is now medically recognized as “stress cardiomyopathy.” So in today’s busy and stressful world, I think it would benefit everyone if we would take a minute and listen to what each brain is saying to us before we act or speak.

JS: What else can we do to relieve stress throughout the day?

KJ: Take time to breathe, as deep breathing has positive effects on our stress levels. Try to adopt the Attitude of Gratitude, which has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, and less anxiety and depression. Also pay attention to what goes in your body, by limiting stimulants such as coffee and sugar, and buying organic and free range foods whenever possible.

JS: So nutrition is important in mental health?

KJ: Certainly. Diet, lifestyle and nutritional supplements can optimize the three brain function and restore mental well-being for many mental health disorders. The interactions of the three brains must be considered important components for mental, emotional and physical well-being. This is not an alternative approach – it is fundamental to optimal mental health.

JS: What supplements can we take to support the gut-heart-brain axis?

KJ: The Daily Brain supplement I formulated contains essential nutrients that provide foundational support for all three brains. Rather than wondering which supplements to take or having to purchasing 5 or 6 different ones, Daily Brain is a cost-effective, once-a-day packet containing phosphatidylserine to support cognition, curcumin and omega-3s to prevent inflammation, grape seed extract to prevent cellular damage, and probiotics support the gut microbiota. Another is called Stress Less and is very effective in preventing stress-related conditions that affect all three brains.

JS: How does Stress Less work?

KJ: Stress Less contains adaptogens, a category of herbs that improve the body’s response to stress. Ashwagandha, panax ginseng and rhodiola help reduce stress hormones, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and increase energy and concentration. Choline helps support the adrenal stress response, and green tea helps with mood and focus.

JS: Any other final tips for keeping our three brains healthy?

KJ: Remember that your DNA no longer equals your destiny. New research in epigenetics shows that healthy lifestyle choices, stress reduction, and nutritional supplementation influence how our genes are expressed. So if you have a family history of cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, or mental disorders, you have considerable control over your future by taking preventative action to ensure your health.