Most of us can relate to having “butterflies” in our stomach, or to a visceral gut-wrenching feeling. And you’ve most likely been told at some point to “go with your gut” or “follow your gut instinct.” Even from our simple slang, it’s clear just how symbolically connected the gut is to our emotions. The thing is, there’s tangible proof too.
We all have a microbiome, and they are as unique as our neural pathways.
Research has shown that the body is actually composed of more bacteria than cells. Collectively, these trillions of bacteria are called the microbiome. Most of those bacteria reside in our gut, sometimes referred to as the gut microbiota, and they play multiple roles in our overall health. The gut is no longer seen as just having a sole purpose of aiding in digestion. It’s also being considered as a key player in regulating inflammation and immunity.
A healthy gut consists of different iterations of bacteria for different people, and this diversity maintains wellness. A shift away from “normal” gut microbiota diversity is called dysbiosis, and dysbiosis may contribute to disease. In light of this, the microbiome has become the focus of much research attention as a new way of understanding autoimmune, gastrointestinal, and even brain disorders.
The benefit of a healthy gut is illustrated most effectively during early development. Research has indicated just how sensitive a fetus is to any changes in a mother’s microbiotic makeup, so much so that it can alter the way a baby’s brain develops. If a baby is born via cesarean section, it misses an opportunity to ingest the mother’s bacteria as it travels down the vaginal canal. Studies show that those born via c-section have to work to regain the same diversity in their microbiome as those born vaginally.
Throughout our lives, our microbiome continues to be a vulnerable entity, and as we are exposed to stress, toxins, chemicals, certain diets, and even exercise, it fluctuates for better or worse.
The gut is like a second brain.
Our gut microbiota play a vital role in our physical and psychological health via their own neural network: the enteric nervous system (ENS), a complex system of about 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut.
The ENS is sometimes called the “second brain,” and it actually arises from the same tissues as our central nervous system (CNS) during fetal development. Therefore, it has many structural and chemical parallels to the brain.
Our ENS doesn’t wax philosophical or make executive decisions, yet in a miraculously orchestrated symphony of hormones, neurotransmitters, and electrical impulses through a pathway of nerves, both “brains” communicate back and forth, often making them seem like one system, not two.
Our emotions play a big role in functional gastrointestinal disorders.
Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it’s clear that emotional and psychosocial factors can trigger symptoms in the gut — especially when the gut acts up and there’s no obvious cause.
Chronic and hard-to-treat gastrointestinal conditions (known as functional gastrointestinal disorders or FGIDs) were once thought to be partly “in one’s head,” but we’ve learned that psychological factors can impact physical factors, like the movement and contractions of the GI tract, causing, inflammation, pain, and other bowel symptoms.
Mental health impacts gut wellness.
In light of this new understanding, it might be impossible to heal FGIDs without considering the impact of stress and emotion. Studies have shown that patients who tried psychologically based approaches had greater improvement in their symptoms compared with patients who received conventional medical treatment.
Along those lines, a new pilot study found that meditation could have a significant impact for those with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Forty-eight patients with either IBS or IBD took a nine-week session that included meditation training, and the results showed reduced pain, improved symptoms, stress reduction, and the change in expression of genes that contribute to inflammation.
Poor gut health can lead to neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders.
On the other hand, poor gut health and the inflammation that arises from a microbiome imbalance has been linked to neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders — multiple sclerosis, autistic spectrum disorders, and Parkinson’s disease. Additional connections between age-related gut changes and Alzheimer’s disease have also been made.
What’s more, there is now research that is dubbing depression as an inflammatory disorder mediated by poor gut health. In fact, multiple animal studies have shown that manipulating the gut microbiota in some way can produce behaviors related to anxiety and depression.
The brain-gut connection goes both ways in terms of treatment.
Proper gut can health can now act as both prevention and treatment of neurological/neuropsychiatric. On the flipside, stress reduction and other psychological treatments can help prevent and treat gastrointestinal disorders. This discovery can potentially lead to reduced morbidity, impairment, and chronic dependency on health care resources.
The most empowering aspect to the gut-brain connection is the understanding that many of our daily lifestyle choices play a role in mediating our overall wellness. This whole-body approach to healthcare and wellness continues to show its value in our longevity, well-being, and quality of life: that both physical and mental health go hand-in-hand.
Originally posted on mindful.org
Maes, Kubera, Leunis, Berk, J. Affective Disorders, 2012 and Berk, Williams, Jacka, BMC Med, 2013
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