Scientists have been studying the brain for centuries, evolving our understanding of its function and capabilities. But even with this extensive research into the brain, there is still much that we do not know about how it works. Yet discoveries continue to be made in brain research, including its connection to other organs and systems within the body.
One such exciting breakthrough in this area is an investigation that has uncovered the brain’s link to the gut. Science has discovered that two-way communication occurs between our brains and our guts via a complex network of neurotransmitters housed in the central nervous and enteric nervous systems. But what are the messages that are being sent back and forth? And how do these messages affect our overall health?
Below we will explore the gut-brain connection, its effect on mood, digestive and mental health, and how you can optimize this relationship for better health.
What is the Gut-Brain Connection?
It has been widely accepted for decades that the emotions we experience impact what happens in our digestive tracts. However, whether it is the ‘butterflies’ we feel when nervous or the stomachache that sometimes occurs when stressed, until recently, this association was believed only to be a one-way relationship where the brain was sending signals to our digestive systems.
However, as scientists have continued to learn more about the gut, they have discovered that it receives and sends messages to the brain. Because of this revelation, the gut has been dubbed the ‘second brain’ due to its makeup of over 100 million nerve cells that are capable of ‘communication.’
Although the ‘second brain’ is not the seat of emotional and mental intelligence like the brain in our heads, research reveals that it is quite profound in its capabilities to communicate with the brain and its effects on our health. So how is the gut able to do this? Read on to find out.
Bacteria, Neurotransmitters & the Immune System
Two vital properties that exist within the gut that enable it to communicate with the brain are the presence of bacteria and neurotransmitters. It appears that the gut microbiome and the neurotransmitters within the gut facilitate this communication with the enteric nervous system. The body’s immune system is also involved as the gut bacteria help regulate the body’s immune response.
- Bacteria – There is an “extensive ecosystem of bacteria and fungi” in the digestive system. These microorganisms are conduits for communication and act upon the neurotransmitters produced in the gut that impact the brain.
- Neurotransmitters – These chemicals are released from the brain and the gut, sending messages back and forth.
Understanding the Role of the Enteric Nervous System: The Communication Superhighway
So, how do these messages travel back and forth from the brain to the gut? The enteric nervous system (ENS) is the vehicle that allows for gut-brain communication. The ENS comprises nerve cells that line the entire digestive system, from the esophagus to the rectum. Research has determined that these cells are the same neurons and neurotransmitters that exist in the central nervous system.
In conjunction with the vagus nerve, the longest of the nerves that connect the brain with the torso, the ENS communicates with the brain. The cells within the ENS can stimulate the vagus nerve, releasing hormones that travel to the brain. The ENS can communicate with the brain through processes involving these chemical messengers and vice versa. When hormones enter the digestive system, they can affect gut bacteria, causing a chemical imbalance. Similarly, gut bacteria can affect neurotransmitters made in the digestive tract, impacting the brain. This information exchange can signal the brain about hunger or fullness and affect mental health and contribute to digestive or neurodegenerative disease.
Emerging Research: The Gut-Brain Axis
Research into the gut-brain connection continues to emerge, advanced by human and animal studies. Some significant findings highlight the importance of gut bacteria and its impact on mental health and digestive disease.
The Relationship to Digestive Function, Mood & Mental Health
Until recently, the relationship between the gut and mental health was primarily theoretical, although mood and mental health were mainly considered contributing factors to digestive disease. However, as research has been advancing, scientists have been able to understand that a causal relationship exists in the other direction as well. Several significant findings have been discovered:
- The ENS can signal the brain to induce mood changes when digestive stress is present. This understanding explains why many people with digestive issues develop depression and anxiety. It is not only the symptoms that can contribute to the way a person with GI issues feels, but it is also that the ENS can trigger mood changes.
- Associations have been made between the lack of certain bacteria and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Specifically, regarding ASD, studies on mice found that when certain gut bacteria were increased, it generated brain changes that promoted increased social interaction, showing bacteria’s effect on brain plasticity.
- Hormones released into the digestive system can disrupt bacteria in the gut. This disruption can contribute to a host of gastrointestinal conditions, including upset stomach, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBD), and constipation.
- It has further been shown that persons with certain mental health conditions such as depression are at increased risk for digestive diseases such as irritable bowel disease (IBD) or Crohn’s disease.
Improving the Gut-Brain Connection
Since we now know that the gut influences the brain and the brain influences the gut, unconventional solutions are emerging to optimize this mutual relationship. Specifically, treatments for digestive disorders are being assessed for their feasibility in addressing mental health conditions, and some mental health treatments are being recommended for GI concerns. But what changes can you make to take advantage of this gut-brain relationship? Focusing on making certain healthy lifestyle choices can help to both reduce gastrointestinal symptoms and decrease stress.
Strengthening the Relationship
When it comes to fortifying the relationship between your gut and brain, addressing the following areas is essential: eating habits/supplementation, body movement, and therapeutic interventions.
What you put in your mouth is vital to facilitating the gut/brain relationship and improving your gut and mental health. Making healthy food choices helps to reduce inflammation in the body and improves the balance of bacteria in the gut. Also, practicing mindful eating that allows you to slow down will aid in producing gastric juices to facilitate the digestive process. Here are some specific suggestions:
- Eat a balanced diet – Try to avoid junk food with harmful sugars and bad fats, which promote inflammation. Instead, try planning ahead to increase the number of fruits, vegetables, and protein in your diet. Specifically, fiber-rich foods like beans, nuts, and oats ‘decreases inflammation and oxidative stress by supporting microbiota.’ Foods abundant in protein also decrease harmful gut bacteria and can improve mood by reducing symptoms of depression. Some protein-rich food sources include eggs, milk, yogurt, broccoli, lean beef, turkey, chicken, and fish.
- Stay hydrated – Drinking adequate water is beneficial for your joints, heart, skin, and a host of bodily functions, including digestion. Aim to drink about six to eight glasses daily.
- Fortify with vitamin D – Increasing your vitamin D intake is beneficial for balancing bacteria and decreasing inflammation in the gut. Some foods packed with vitamin D are eggs, tuna, salmon, and fortified milk. Supplementing with this vitamin can also play a key role in maintaining health. When choosing a vitamin D supplement, look for a product free of preservatives, supported by good manufacturing processes to ensure high quality.
- Increase Omega 3s – Increasing omega 3s in your diet can help improve cognition. You can accomplish this by incorporating foods like walnuts, flaxseed, and salmon into your regimen, as well as a high-quality supplement.
- Include Probiotics – Research has shown that including certain probiotics can help improve gut health and mood.
Exercise is good for your overall physical health, but it can also help reduce stress and improve your emotional health.
Another facet to strengthen the gut-brain relationship, especially if you have a GI condition that is not responding to medical treatment or if stress is exacerbating your symptoms, is therapeutic interventions. Some of the interventions below used in behavioral medicine may be able to help.
- Relaxation therapy – Different techniques aimed at increasing relaxation and reducing stress.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) – Focuses on reducing negative thought patterns and developing skills to manage stress better.
- Gut-directed relaxation training – Helps target improving GI function through ‘deep relaxation and positive suggestions.’
- Biofeedback – The stress management approach focuses on teaching an individual how to control automatic body responses.
There are many steps you can take to get control of your emotional and physical health. At Binto, we aim to empower women in their health journey through the use of preventative medicine. Our supplements are effective because we take care to use only evidence-based, quality ingredients, and we abide by strict manufacturing guidelines. Our vitamin D, omega 3, and probiotic supplements are specifically designed to support your immune and gut health. So whatever life stage you are in, Binto can help you achieve your optimal healthy self.
If you’re ready to feel AND be better, book a telehealth consultation today! We look forward to speaking with you and assisting you on the road to better health.