What does it mean when people say, “follow your gut feeling?”
There’s a science to this expression that ties the emotions travelling to your brain and gut. It can answer questions on what triggers “feelings” in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Anxiety, fear, happiness, excitement, and disgust are emotions that send signals from the brain to the gut in both directions. This is is why people in overwhelming stress often have an upset stomach or feel GI contractions.
People with depression don’t just imagine feeling “under the weather” or pretend to have bowel symptoms. Psychological and psychosocial factors may cause distress or actual movement in the gut.
These two (2) organs in your body – the gut and the brain – closely interact and connect with each other in both directions. This article explores their interrelatedness, and how the state of your gut reflects your well-being.
Your stomach and brain work together
What you eat directly affects your brain functions and consequently alters your mood. Eating more vegetables, protein and good sources of fat will provide dietary energy. Good sources of carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals are essential fuels to power the brain. They help coordinate sensation, intellect, and nervous activity with the rest of your body.
Your body needs food sustenance that helps your gut and brain perform well. Good hydration and a balanced diet help avoid changes in GI bacteria resulting in constipation or other health issues.
Food is digested from the mouth, esophagus, and stomach. It is then processed down to the intestines, gallbladder, liver, pancreas, and all the way down to the rectum. Gut inflammation can be caused by unhealthy gut bacteria and may lead to a compromised immune system.
The gut-brain axis is the communication system between your gut and brain. This axis is like the main channel where the stomach and brain work together. These two (2) body parts are physically and biochemically connected in the following ways:
- Vagus nerve. It is one of the biggest nerves in the body that controls and sends messages to the gut. This nerve sends signals bidirectionally with some of the vital organs like the heart and lungs. When the vagus nerve doesn’t function well, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) typically happen.
- Gut Microbiome. Chemical messages that pass between the gut and brain can be affected by the fungi, bacteria, and viruses living in the gut. They can be beneficial or harmful. Prebiotics help feed good bacteria to grow in your gut. Probiotics, live bacteria that exist in foods such as yogurt and apple cider vinegar, can also help.
- Hormones and neurotransmitters. Did you know that you have most of your serotonin – the “happy hormone” – in your GI tract? This hormone is responsible for your body clock and digestion. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the neurotransmitters responsible for controlling your feelings of fear and anxiety, can also be found here. The gut connects with the brain and sends messages through these chemicals inside your body.
GI symptoms such as indigestion, acid reflux, and bloating are strongly correlated to mental health problems. Many studies1 have shown that changes in the gut microbiome and inflammation can affect the brain. These changes affect higher cognitive functions often causing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
What is Gut-Brain Connection Anxiety?
Whenever you’re scared or giddy, it’s not unusual to feel “butterflies in your stomach.” Even with just the thought of something that excites you, you feel something in your stomach for some reason. ENS (enteric nervous system) is the “brain in your gut” that causes the “butterflies.” This is due to the millions of nerve cells and complex reflex circuits lining the entire GI tract.
Scholarpedia explains that “the ENS has extensive, two-way, connections with the central nervous system (CNS), and works in concert with the CNS to control the digestive system in the context of local and whole-body physiological demands.” This is responsible for the gut movement, fluid exchange, and blood flow so the body’s reaction to signals may affect reflex control and sensory-motor activity.
The GI tract is essentially constantly communicating with the CNS and vice versa. When you’re anxious, the brain sends triggers to the GI tract. These triggers affect food breakdown or gut microbiome activity causing GI problems.
Next time you feel uneasy and can’t seem to eat, “nerves” could be the reason. When you experience an upset stomach where you keep going back to the bathroom before an oral presentation, you know that your brain is not fooling you. You actually “feel sick to the stomach” because there are mental and emotional stressors in your mind and body.
Heal the Gut, Heal the Brain
Anxiety remains to be the most common mental illness in the world based on Mental Health Statistics 2021. It continues to affect 284 million people around the world, 11.9% of which are female, while 9.3% are male. A person’s gut may not be the first place we check when treating depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses but it could be the best place to start optimizing our mental health.
We can easily damage our gut microbiome with the kind of diet comprised of food rich in fat and sugar. Thus, we should exert a conscious effort to improve our gut bacteria with proper nutrition and lifestyle.
Your gut health and diet can affect your mood positively or negatively. While food is one factor that impacts serious forms of depression and anxiety attacks, consider seeking medical attention if you are experiencing negative thoughts that could lead to self-harm.
Here at Cognitive Health and Wellness Institute, we have medical professionals who help people with pain and discomfort caused by chronic inflammation.
Learn more about our natural healing approach and benefit from our nutrition strategies to promote a healthy lifestyle that your gut will trust!