Scientists are making breakthroughs about the gut-brain connection. Have you ever had a gut feeling or butterflies in your stomach? Do certain situations make you “feel nauseous”? We use these expressions for a reason.
For years we’ve known that the gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotions. But why?
Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this “brain in your guts” is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think.
This article explores what scientists currently know about the gut-brain connection.
How Are the Gut and Brain Connected?
The gut-brain axis is a term for the communication network (scientifically known as the enteric nervous system) that connects your gut and brain. These two organs are connected both physically and biochemically in a number of different ways.
The Vagus Nerve and The Nervous System:
Neurons tell your body how to behave. The digestive system is also filled with similar neurons. These neurons communicate with its own own nervous system, the enteric nervous system.
The ENS consists of approximately 100 million nerve cells in and around the GI tract. The vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves within your ENS that connects your gut and brain.
For example, the brain sends signals to the digestive, or gastrointestinal (GI), track via the sympathetic (“flight or flight”) nervous system and the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system. The balance of signals from these two inputs can affect the speed at which food moves through the digestive system, absorption of nutrients, secretion of digestive juice, and level of inflammation in the digestive system.
However, the communication doesn’t stop there.
Gut Health and Mood:
Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it becomes easier to understand why you might feel nauseated before giving a presentation, or feel intestinal pain during times of stress.
This doesn’t mean that functional gastrointestinal conditions are “all in your head”. Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as symptoms. In other words, stress (or other psychological factors) can affect movement and contractions of the GI tract.
Chemicals called neurotransmitters also connect your brain and gut. Neurotransmitters produced in the brain control feeling and emotions. For example, the neurotransmitter serotonin contributes to feelings of happiness and also helps control your body clock.
Your gut cells make two main neurotransmitters. Serotonin being one, as well as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA helps control feelings of fear and anxiety.
Mind-Body Approaches To GI Ailments:
Given this strong mind-body/brain gut connection, it should come as no surprise that mind-body tools are helpful. They decrease the body’s stress response by dampening the sympathetic nervous system, enhancing the parasympathetic response, and decreasing inflammation.
Thanks to the leading brain-gut research, scientists are reestablishing both a healthy gut and a healthy mind.