Understanding Your Gut-Brain Connection

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We are all familiar with the phrases “go with your gut,” “gut-wrenching experience,” or “butterflies in your stomach.” Although these phrases and idioms might be used in very different situations, they all suggest a connection between our gut and our emotions. Scientists have studied this connection for a long time and have identified how our brain can influence our gut. For example, simply thinking of eating can release stomach juices even without the presence of food. However, recent studies have suggested that the gut-brain connection might go the other way around too.

The Gut-Brain Axis (GBA) refers to the bidirectional communication between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system (ENS) is made of two thin layers of millions of nerve cells that line your gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus to the rectum.  The main role of the ENS is to control digestion from the swallowing point to nutrient absorption. The ENS connects our cognitive and digestive behavior through communication with our brain.

This communication is linked to various emotional shifts related to the gut. For example, ENS may trigger drastic emotional shifts for people dealing with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diarrhea, upset stomach, and even bloating. Studies have also found that a high percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety. There are even recent studies that have linked microbiome diversity in the gut to mental health.

This understanding of our gut’s influence over our emotions has led to new treatment opportunities. For example, gastroenterologists have begun to prescribe antidepressants for IBS because some of these medications can give calming effects by acting on nerve cells in the gut. Mind-body therapies are also emphasized with the gut-brain connection. Gut-directed hypnotherapies, yoga, and meditation are proven to improve gastrointestinal issues, improve emotions, and decrease anxiety.

Research surrounding the gut-brain connection presents a holistic view of health where the different systems of the body are recognized as interconnected. Learning about this connection can help you assess your gastrointestinal issues, and to evaluate them alongside the emotions and stressors in your life. For all you know, “butterflies in your stomach” can be more than a simple idiom.

Johns Hopkins: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-brain-gut-connection
Harvard: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection
Duke: https://dukeintegrativemedicine.org/DHWBlog/understanding-the-basics-of-the-gut-brain-connection/