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How the Gut-Brain Connection Works

Did you know that your mental state can affect your gut?

For example, if you're worried about an upcoming work presentation or something you’re not looking forward to, this could make your tummy feel like it has butterflies or is on fire.

Vice versa digestive problems such as constipation, bloating and gassiness could cause you to be anxious and stressed out.

If you're wondering how this is possible, it is because the brain and gut have a communication system often referred to as the gut-brain connection [1] .

Columbia University Medical Center gastroenterologist Dr. Daniela Jodorkovsky describes the gut-brain axis as follows, “The gastrointestinal tract is considered the ‘second brain’ because it contains a lot of nerve cells, which send signals back and forth to the brain. Chronic stress and anxiety release a compound in the brain called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). This can have effects on spasms or diarrhea, as well as increased pain signaling from the nerve fibers of the gut to the brain.”

In this post, I’ll delve deeper into the gut-brain connection and how to keep this link healthy.

How Are the Brain and Gut Connected?

These two organs are connected biochemically and physically in several ways.

Physically the gut and brain are connected by neurons.

Your gut has 500 million neurons that connect via the central nervous system [2] to your brain.

One of the larger neurons connecting your brain and gut is the vagus nerve [3] , which sends bidirectional signals.

Neurotransmitters commonly referred to as the body's chemical messengers also connect the gut and the brain.

Neurotransmitters are produced in the gut and brain and help control your emotions.

For example, a large portion of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to you feeling happy, is produced in the gut.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) [4] , another neurotransmitter that helps your brain control anxiety and fear is also produced in the gut.

The Gut-Brain Connection and Mental Health

From the information above, it is possible to see how your stomach and intestines can cause you to experience sadness, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental issues.

It may sound crazy, but several studies [5] have found that people with functional bowel issues such as an upset stomach, diarrhea, and constipation, and those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may have drastic mood changes.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimates almost 90% of IBS sufferers have depression or anxiety.

New research on the gut-brain connection also suggests that gastrointestinal tract activity may also affect cognitive skills (memory and thinking), but more research is needed on this.

The Role of Nutrition in the Gut-Brain Connection

What you eat will determine if you have a healthy or unhealthy gut.

A healthy gut has a large number of good gut microbes which are bacteria and other microscopic living things found in your intestines. Having good microbes in your gut not only helps you manage mental issues but also boosts your immune system, combats obesity, and offers many other health benefits [6] .

Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and foods rich in fiber contributes enormously to you having a healthy gut.

Processed, high-fat, and sugary foods can cause a decrease in the number of good bacteria in the gut, which can lead to an unhealthy gut and brain health problems.

Signs you have an unhealthy gut because of your diet include:

  • An upset stomach. This is the most obvious sign of an unhealthy gut and its symptoms include bloating, gas, heartburn, diarrhea, and constipation.
  • Unplanned for weight changes. If you suddenly lose or add weight without exercising or a diet change you might have an unhealthy gut.

For example, a decrease in good bacteria in your gut could affect your body’s ability to store fat and absorb nutrients leading to reduced weight. Decreased nutrient absorption could also cause you to feel hungry often resulting in you overeating and gaining weight.

  • Constant fatigue and sleep disturbances. An unhealthy gut may not produce the right amounts of serotonin, a hormone that stimulates the parts of the brain [7] that control your sleep. Due to this fact, you may experience poor sleep or insomnia causing you to suffer from fatigue.
  • Sugar cravings. The reduction in your gut’s good bacteria could cause you to have a big appetite for high-sugar foods. Giving in to your sugar cravings could further damage your gut.

Other signs that you have an unhealthy gut are skin conditions like eczema, autoimmune conditions, and food intolerances.

Pay close attention to your gut-brain connection to avoid digestion and anxiety problems

You should take your gut-brain link seriously because as you have seen it can cause many stomach and mental problems.

If you do find your gut is not in the best condition possible and it is causing you to have mood swings, anxiety, depression, etc., there are some steps you can take to remedy the situation.

Here are a few of them.

  • Change your diet

This is easier said than done, but to have a healthy gut you should avoid eating a lot of processed, high fat, and sugar-filled foods. Many people find that removing high inflammatory foods such as gluten and dairy products can improve the health of their gut.

Instead, try to consume more plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.

Lean protein foods such as white-fleshed fish, turkey, chicken, beans and eggs are also good options to include in your diet.

  • Drink lots of water

Health experts recommend that you take at least eight glasses of water a day. Following this advice is a simple way to ensure your gut remains healthy.

  • Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night

Lack of enough sleep can seriously damage your gut and lead to more sleep problems and mental issues. So, ensure you prioritize getting a good night's sleep every day.

  • Keep your stress levels low

High levels of stress affect not only your gut but your whole body.

So if you're stressed, look for ways such as walking, meditating, hanging out with friends, and yoga to lower your stress levels.

  • Take a probiotic or prebiotic

Probiotic or prebiotic supplements can significantly improve your gut-brain connection.

Probiotics are good live bacteria that give you several health benefits. Prebiotics, which provide a food source for probiotic bacteria, stimulate the growth of good bacteria in your gut.

One study [8] of individuals who took probiotics while they had irritable bowel syndrome and mild depression or anxiety showed their symptoms greatly improved after six weeks.

Another study showed prebiotics [9] significantly reduced stress hormones in the body which resulted in a healthier gut.

There are many probiotic and prebiotic supplements on the market, and not all of them are high quality.

If you do choose to use one of these supplements, consult your doctor first so that you can choose a probiotic or prebiotic supplement that gives you the best health benefits. You can also see Belly Brain's Guide to Top Women's Probiotics here, reviewed by our nutritionist.



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