Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous? How about “going with your gut” when making a quick decision? Do you ever have a “gut feeling” about something? If so, you’re already well aware of the brain-gut connection. But what other effects can the brain have on your digestion?
THE BRAIN-GUT CONNECTION
The brain has a direct effect on your gut, including your stomach and intestines. The gut is controlled by its own network of neurons in the lining of the gastrointestinal system, known as the enteric nervous system, but it’s also controlled in part by the central nervous system in the brain and spinal cord.
The digestive system is sensitive to emotion, including anger, anxiety and sadness. This is why you might feel sick to your stomach when you’re particularly stressed out. Stress, depression and other psychological factors, can send the brain-gut connection out of whack and cause alterations to gut physiology.
These feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut that interfere with digestive functions such as swallowing, the release of enzymes to break down foods and the categorization of foods as nutrients or waste products. Stress can affect movement and contractions of the gastrointestinal tract, increase inflammation and exacerbate gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). There is also a strong relationship between mental health issues and gastrointestinal symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation and diarrhea.
And this brain-gut connection is not a one-way street. Evidence has shown that when someone is dealing with gastrointestinal problems, their gut’s enteric nervous system may send signals to the central nervous system that trigger emotional changes. These findings could explain why a higher-than-average percentage of people with digestive problems develop depression and anxiety.
It’s this connection that has many researchers hopeful that improving gut health and microbiota (bacteria in your digestive tract) through probiotics might one day be an option in treating mental illness. While we know probiotics support a healthy gut and can restore normal microbial balance, more research is required to see if it supports a healthy brain.
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WHAT CAN YOU DO IF YOU'RE EXPERIENCING DIGESTIVE PROBLEMS?
To start, increasing your intake of foods that promote digestive health, such as those rich in prebiotics or probiotics, can be helpful. Prebiotic foods are high in fibre and feed the friendly bacteria in your gut; try asparagus, bananas, garlic or onions. Healthy probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir and kombucha. Supplemental probiotics may not be right for you, so be sure to check with your healthcare team before consuming.
If you’re experiencing consistent issues of the digestive system, your body could be trying to tell you that there is a bigger problem, so be sure to speak with your physician or registered dietitian.
If you believe that your digestive health may be negatively impacted by your mental health, it’s important that you speak with your physician or psychologist. In many situations, psychological treatment can ease digestive conditions or at least help a person cope with their gastrointestinal symptoms. Common signs and symptoms of mental illness include continually feeling sad or down, excessive fears or worries, sleep problems and a desire to withdraw from others.
If you’re being impacted by stress, there are several things you can do to reduce stress and improve gut health. Practicing stress management techniques, such as exercising regularly, avoiding stressors, socializing, getting enough sleep, can greatly minimize your stress levels.
By committing only 10 minutes a day to mental health exercises, you’ll learn to implement tools and strategies proven to lower everyday levels of stress and anxiety.