Ever wonder why you get “butterflies” in your stomach before doing something stressful? Or why you feel like your stomach is “tied in knots” after an argument? Ever had a meeting with a toilet that went longer than expected and it wasn’t caused by anything you ate? Stomach problems are one of the most common symptoms of stress and anxiety. Researchers have identified a powerful connection between the gut and the brain.
What Is “The Gut”?
The gut includes every organ involved in digesting food and processing it into waste. Apart from digestion, the gut contains a large number of nerve endings and genetic material (from bacteria, see below), which is why the lining of your gut is often called “the second brain.”
How Is The Gut Connected To The Brain?
The gut or “second brain” can operate on its own and communicates back and forth with your actual brain. They are connected in two main ways:
The vagus nerve, which controls messages to the gut as well as the heart, lungs, and other vital organs is the gut’s direct connection to the brain.
The gut also connects with the brain through chemicals like hormones and neurotransmitters that send messages. E.g. bacteria can secrete tryptophan which gets converted to serotonin in the body and this chemical directly regulates your mood. Gut bacteria also reduce inflammation which is a factor behind generation of a lot of cytokines.
The chemical messages that pass between the gut and the brain can be affected by the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in the gut called the “gut microbiome.”
What is gut microbiome?
The “gut microbiome” is a collection of many types of bacteria that live in our gut. Scientists estimate that we each carry 100 trillion bacteria in our digestive tract alone!
We have a symbiotic relationship with our gut microbiome. We (the host) provide an environment for bacteria to thrive. In return, gut-dwelling bacteria keep pathogens (harmful micro-organisms) in check, aid digestion and nutrient absorption, and contribute to immune function.
How Is The Gut Microbiome Related To Mental Health?
There is a strong relationship between having mental health problems and having gastrointestinal symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea .
Having anxiety and depression can cause changes in the gut microbiome because of what happens in the body when it has a stress response .
Research in animals has shown that changes in the gut microbiome and inflammation in the gut can affect the brain and cause symptoms that look like Parkinson’s disease, autism, anxiety and depression.
Tips For Taking Care Of Your Gut
- Eating a balanced and nutritious diet is the most important thing a person can do to keep their gut healthy. Feed the good bacteria that live in the gut what they like to help them grow. These foods are called prebiotics. Prebiotic foods are high in fiber and work best when they are raw.
- Eating probiotics can be tricky. The types and amounts of bacteria in probiotics vary, and when foods are heated the bacteria often die. Examples of probiotic foods are yogurt (the label should say live or active cultures), unpasteurized sauerkraut and kimchi, miso soup, kefir (a yogurt-like beverage), kombucha (fermented black tea), tempeh (made of soy beans), and apple cider vinegar (bit controversial, technically not enough bacteria to be called a probiotic as per some experts).
You can also get probiotic supplements to help grow good gut bacteria, but it is important to pick the right ones. Make sure the type of bacteria is listed on the bottle – Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are some of the most common and backed by evidence – and that the label says that the bacteria are live and there are billions of colony forming units (CFUs).
- Don’t base your diet on sugary, fried, or processed foods and soft drinks.
- Avoid taking antibiotics unless your doctor says they are absolutely necessary. Antibiotics kill bad bacteria, but also kill the good bacteria that keeps your gut working properly.
- If you have gut problems like an upset stomach or unusual bathroom habits that don’t go away it is important to see a doctor.
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- Mussell, M, et al. Gastrointestinal symptoms in primary care: prevalence and association with depression and anxiety. (2008). Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 64(6): 605-612.
- Posserud I, Agerforz P, Ekman R, Björnsson ES, Abrahamsson H, Simrén M. Altered visceral perceptual and neuroendocrine response in patients with irritable bowel syndrome during mental stress. (2004). Gut. Aug 1;53(8):1102-8.