Feb. 3, 2022

Gut feelings are real: Exploring the gut-brain connection

Kinesiology researcher coaches how 'self-compassion' can improve quality of life for those with celiac disease
woman laying on floor in workout gear doing a meditation

Researcher and health coach Dr. Justine Dowd, PhD, struggled with gut health for many years before being diagnosed with celiac disease at 25. During her long journey of healing, she realized there is more to gut health than diet.

“My health coaching clients are often told by their doctor that they aren’t dying, but that there is nothing else (the doctor) can do for them,” she says. “(But) you don’t have to go on struggling with digestive pain … there are evidence-based strategies you can use to help you to cope and feel better.”

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes intolerance to gluten. Symptoms can include bloating, stomach pain and even infertility. 

Since 2015, Dowd has been a Canadian Institutes of Health Research-funded postdoctoral scholar with the Faculty of Kinesiology’s Health and Wellness Lab. Her research, she says, aims to “explore the role of wholistic strategies like self-compassion and exercise in optimizing health among people with digestive issues.”

The focus of her work over the last six years has been to explore how these factors can positively impact quality of life among people with celiac disease.

Dr. Justine Dowd, PhD

Justine Dowd is a postdoctoral scholar conducting research on digestive issues in the Faculty of Kinesiology's Health and Wellness lab.

Drawing from results of studies conducted during her postdoctoral fellowship, Dowd found that exercise and self-compassion are two wholistic strategies that positively impact those with celiac disease.

Staying active

Consistent exercise helps people feel better and reduces their gastrointestinal symptoms, Dowd says. The strategies she shares as a health coach further benefit people as it helps them maintain an active lifestyle in the long term.

“Exercise has numerous benefits. You feel better physically, emotionally, mentally, and it is often an opportunity for social engagement,” she says, adding that, although it is uncertain if this is direct cause-and-effect, people taking her exercise and wholistic lifestyle program have reported reduced gastrointestinal symptoms and improved quality of life.


Self-compassion, which entails self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness, helps with coping with the psychosocial aspect of ongoing digestive struggles, says Dowd. She teaches her clients ways of using this coping strategy and encourages them to embrace it, especially when going through difficult times.

Self-kindness, she says, focuses on kind and caring words to oneself, as opposed to harsh self-criticism.

Common humanity is about reminding yourself that you are not alone, that there are millions of other people who also endure the ups and downs of chronic digestive issues.

Finally, Dowd explains, mindfulness focuses on the therapeutic technique of acknowledging the present moment and bringing your attention back to your breath when you notice it “running away” with worries about the past or future.

“When we practise self-compassion, we say things like, ‘I am so sorry you’re going through this, this is really tough.’ It’s kind of like a parent to a child, how they would talk to them, rather than being harsh and critical which, unfortunately, is the default reaction for so many of us,” says Dowd.

Gut-brain connection

Self-compassion can also help people feel better physically. Dowd says one potential mechanism for this positive effect is the vagus nerve connecting the gut and the brain. This connection is why, when we’re nervous, we may feel “butterflies” in our stomach, and, if we have ongoing gut-health struggles, it can negatively impact our mental health.

“When we practise self-compassion, it helps to engage the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system so that we can calm down, which helps us to feel better physically and emotionally,” say Dowd.

One of Dowd’s clients, Sandy Johansson, says she now has a better quality of life. "Justine helped me connect the stress response to my gut distress, and we worked together to help me slow down and engage in activities that helped me regulate my nervous system.”

To learn more about Dowd’s wholistic disease management, and how to literally trust your gut, visit her website

The Faculty of Kinesiology is the No. 1 sport science school in North America and No. 1 globally.

Justine Dowd is an adjunct assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology Health and Wellness Lab at the University of Calgary. A health and wellness specialist, Dowd conducted research on celiac disease during her doctorate at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and postdoctoral fellowships at UBC Okanagan and UCalgary. Since 2015, she has been a Canadian Institutes of Health Research-funded postdoctoral fellow with the Health and Wellness Lab, with six research studies published on wholistic disease management.