What is the Gut-Brain Connection and Why You Should Care About It?

Keegan Warrington
August 1, 2022

The brain is the body’s central processing unit. It is the organ that controls different aspects of human life, including thought, emotion, feelings, movement, and memory. The brain also regulates every chemical process in the body and influences how the body responds to specific situations. It communicates to the rest of the body through the spinal cord, the second component of the central nervous system.

The brain connects to the spinal cord to deliver signals to the rest of the body through the peripheral nervous system consisting of nerves. The signals travel from the brain through neurons, specialized cells that carry electrical signals. Different neurons trigger other effects, like motor neurons telling your muscles to move.

Another fascinating thing about the brain is its connection with the human microbiota, the collection of microorganisms that live and thrive inside the human body. The gut-brain connection gives a deeper meaning to the study of mental health and how it affects the microbiota in the human digestive system. Let’s learn more about this in this article.

can stomach issues cause anxiety

The Vagus Nerve

The digestive system (commonly referred to as the gut) has about 500 million neurons. These neurons influence the feeling of hunger and fullness. It also handles digestive processes like peristalsis (wave-like movement), the release of gastric juices, and the absorption of nutrients. The vagal nerves are in charge of sending information between the digestive system, heart, and brain, making vagal nerves the bridge to the gut-brain axis.

In a study evaluating the relationships of different factors in Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the researchers found that people with IBS have reduced vagal nerve activity. This reduced functioning of the nerve suggests that the brain and gut connection plays a significant role in the study of mental health.

The collection of nerves in the gut lining forms the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS’ function is to control the processes that happen in the digestive tract. They are in charge of bringing the food from the esophagus to the stomach and order the release of stomach juices to break down food into simple components.

gut health and mental health

Understanding the Gut-Brain Connection

Experts in neuropsychology believe that the microbiota of the human body plays a role in the gut-brain axis. The human microbiome is composed of good and bad bacteria. The good bacteria in the body help digestion and prevents the spread of bad bacteria. Imbalances in the population of good bacteria in the microbiome cause problems which could affect mental health.

Disruption in the normal and healthful balance of bacteria in the body leads to an overreaction of the body’s immune system to fight off potential infections, especially in the gastrointestinal tract. The immune system’s reaction produces symptoms of diseases that are just side effects of the immune response.

Can Our Gut Health Affect Our Mental Health?

The cells in the digestive system, including the good bacteria that thrive in it, produce the neurotransmitter serotonin. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry chemical signals from the brain. These signals can be involuntary movements (e.g., heartbeat) or voluntary movements (e.g., walking). Aside from movements, neurotransmitters also alter our moods, feelings, and emotions.

Serotonin is a chemical responsible for feelings of happiness. A study published by the National Library of Medicine reports that some bacteria in the gut also produce serotonin. Now how does this affect gut health and mental health? Previously, we’ve discussed that imbalances in the bacterial diversity in the gut microbiota can cause problems in the body. If the serotonin-releasing bacteria become outnumbered, it can influence a person’s mental health and emotions.

Moreover, the lack of bacteria that metabolize bile can cause acid reflux, affecting a person’s eating patterns, hunger, and disposition.

anxiety and gut health

Can Stomach Issues Cause Anxiety?

No, stomach issues don’t directly cause anxiety. It’s the other way around — anxiety can cause stomach issues. The gut-brain connection plays an important role in understanding how certain mental illnesses manifest physically through stomach problems.

Hence, medications to reduce discomfort from stomach issues are just a temporary fix. That’s why finding the best treatment for anxiety can also treat stomach issues.

What is the Connection Between Anxiety and Gut Health?

The connection between the digestive system and the brain is a two-way street. When you feel hungry, the brain sends signals to the stomach to release gastric juices. Your mouth also salivates to break down food and to aid in lubrication as it goes down the stomach. Once you feel full, the stomach signals to the brain to tell you it’s already filled.

Gut health and anxiety are related because of the two-way connection of the gut-brain axis. Mental health problems like anxiety may alter the person’s digestive reactions, such as nausea, suppression of appetite, or even vomiting.

Additionally, it’s not just anxiety that can affect your gut health. Stress is the major contributory factor that alters the normal functioning of the gut. Problems like heartburn (acid reflux), cramps, and low bowel movements can sometimes be due to stress and not because of bacterial or viral infections.

Bacterial or viral stomach problems often go away with prescription drugs. However, recurring stomach problems may not indicate bacterial and viral infections. They may instead be manifestations of a lingering mental health problem that disrupts the gut-brain axis.

brain and gut connection

The Bottom Line

The gut-brain connection is important in understanding how the brain influences the digestive system’s functions and actions. Finding the link between mental health disorders and stomach problems can help relieve the symptoms and treat the leading cause of the problem. If you’re experiencing recurring stomach problems and abnormalities, consulting mental health experts can help pinpoint if these stomach problems are symptoms of mental health disorders.

Roots TMS is a leading mental health services organization offering cutting-edge treatment to people suffering from mental health disorders. Part of our services at Roots is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). We offer TMS in treating depression and anxiety to supplement medications and therapies. Learn more about TMS today. Call us at (562) 561-2455 or fill out our contact form to take that important first step towards recovery and wellness.

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Keegan Warrington