The gut-brain connection you need to know about

Have you had a strong gut feel or a sick-to-the-stomach experience, or had butterflies in your stomach? These expressions are used for a reason. The gut-brain connection is vast, complex and two-way, and it directly links emotions like anxiety to stomach problems and vice versa.

Understanding the mysteries of gut health helps us discover that by nurturing our gut, we can find profound improvements in our mental, emotional, and overall well-being.

The gut-brain connection:

There is an intricate, often overlooked, communication system between the gut and brain, which links them physically and biochemically. The key players in this connection include the enteric nervous system (ENS), the vagus nerve and gut microbiome.

The gut is often referred to as the second brain due to the complex and intricate network of neurons within the ENS, which is embedded in the lining of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The ENS, often described as a brain in the gut, enjoys a high level of autonomy, allowing it to regulate many aspects of digestive function independently of the central nervous system.

This independence gives the gut a significant degree of control over processes such as the movement of food through the digestive tract, secretion of digestive enzymes, and blood flow in the gastrointestinal system.

Furthermore, the ENS generates and uses a wide range of neurotransmitters, chemicals that send signals to the brain. These neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, are also found in the brain and have key roles in regulating mood and emotional responses. The bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain occurs through the gut-brain axis, where signals are exchanged through the vagus nerve and other pathways.

This means that the gut and the brain can influence each other’s functions, leading to the understanding of how gut health can impact mental and emotional states.

The vagus nerve is also a major conduit transmitting signals between the gut and brain in a bidirectional manner. It’s one of the 12 cranial nerves, which begin in the cranium and travel down through your body, branching out along the way.

The vagus nerve conveys sensory information about the conditions inside the gut from the ENS to the brain. In response, it conveys motor signals from brain to gut. Emotions like stress, for instance, can disrupt these signals, leading to GI issues. As the GI tract is sensitive to emotion, anger, anxiety, sadness, excitement and other heightened emotions, it can trigger symptoms in the gut.

What may surprise you is that the bacteria that lives in your gut are also involved in your gut-brain connection. Gut microbes help produce many of the chemical neurotransmitters that convey messages between your gut and brain. They also produce other chemicals that can affect your brain through the bloodstream. In turn, the brain and gut can affect the gut microbiome by altering its environment.

Studies show that the gut microbiome may be involved in neurological, mental health and functional gastrointestinal disorders as well. Functional disorders are those that cause persistent symptoms but don’t have any obvious physical cause. Hence, evidence shows a significant overlap among people who have functional gastrointestinal disorders, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and who have mental health issues like sleep disorders, stress and anxiety.

Celebrity Nutritionist and Lifestyle Educator Nupuur Patil says, “Your brain and digestive system are in constant communication. Your brain through various hormones and nerve pathways controls normal digestive function. Stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, can influence your digestive function via the nerves that travel directly from your brain to your gut.

These stress hormones also affect the gut microbiology. It’s the same biome that makes happy hormones. Prolonged exposure to physical, mental or emotional stress can hinder the growth of the gut microbiota and in turn compromise immunity. It is very important to take care of your mental health which is directly connected to the amount of sleep you get and screen time. This communication superhighway travels both ways, which means that digestive problems can affect your mood and behaviour too. Thus the term gut feeling was formed”.

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