The Gut-Mind Connection: How Gut Health Affects Mental Health

When Hippocrates said that “all disease starts in the gut,” he made a bold and accurate prediction. For centuries, doctors have been trying to figure out how exactly diseases start but as of recently, there’s finally some clarity thanks to new insights into chronic inflammatory disorders like Crohn’s Disease.

There’s a communication system between your gut and brain called the “gut-brain axis.” What’s more, recent studies show that this connection can affect both gut and mental health. Have you ever had butterflies in your stomach or felt like something might be wrong? This could mean your gut instinct was real all along. 

Can stress cause constipation? Can the mind cause gastrointestinal distress? According to science, the connection is very real and very important to understand. 

The Enteric Nervous System: Your Second Brain

Commonly referred to as your “second brain”, scientists call this the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus to the rectum. 

Researchers are now discovering that the irritability of an individual’s gastrointestinal system may be due to disruptions in the mood. The ENS has been observed by scientists for decades as they studied how emotions affect IBS symptoms such as bloating or stomach pain. What researchers have concluded is that these changes in mood occur because irritation experienced within one part of your body can send signals all over your nervous system including into your brain. This can ultimately affect what we think about ourselves, thus causing anxiety or depression-like feelings.

The Vagus Nerve: The Gut-Mind Connection Highway

All information produced by the ENS is carried by the vagus nerve and vice versa. There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain, however, there are nearly 500 million neurons in the gut. The vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves in your body. It carries signals in both directions from the brain to the gut, and the gut to the brain. This means that stress can cause stomach pain and stomach pain can cause stress.  

A study that was done on mice showed that feeding them a probiotic ended up reducing a stress hormone in their blood. Afterward, the vagus nerve was severed. The mice were then fed the same probiotic, but this time there was no effect on the stress hormone. Ultimately, this means the vagus nerve plays an important role in the gut-mind connection.

Understanding the connection between our two brains is crucial in treating conditions like IBS and bowel disorders. This new research offers a better understanding of why therapies such as antidepressants, mind-body techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and medical hypnotherapy are successful treatments for these types of health issues. Our brain communicates with itself so we need to see gastroenterologists not just as doctors who treat digestive problems, but also counselors looking for ways to help your second brain.

Neurotransmitters are Produced in the Gut

Your gut and brain are also connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters. These molecules regulate how you feel, think, or act by passing messages from one part of the body to another. Many of these neurotransmitters are also produced by your gut cells. For example, serotonin regulates moods such as happiness. Also, it helps control circadian rhythms (body clock) as a result.

In fact, a large proportion of all these chemicals are actually produced in your intestines. Your microbes also produce the neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is a neurotransmitter that controls feelings of fear and anxiety. This might help explain why people who have anxiety disorders tend to be more anxious when they’re sick with diarrhea than if their stomach was empty.

The Gut-Mind Connection is Also Affected by Other Gut Microbes

The gut also produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) like propionate, acetate, and butyrate when digesting fiber. SCFA’s affect the brain in many different ways and are primarily linked to a reduction in appetite. 

One study found that consuming the SCFA, propionate can reduce food intake and the activity in the brain related to reward from high-energy foods. Another SCFA, butyrate, is also important for forming a barrier between your gut and blood called the “blood-brain” barrier. 

Scientists have discovered that our gut microbes not only metabolize bile acids but also amino acids. This process can produce chemicals that affect the brain and mental health. In two other studies that involved mice, it was discovered that stress and social disorders reduce the production of bile acids by gut bacteria and alter the genes involved in their production.

What Affects Our Gut Mind Connection?

We all have millions of bacteria living in our guts, but no two people are alike. Each individual carries a different assortment of bacterial species and each person’s microbial composition is as unique as their fingerprint. 

We understand that what’s going in our stomach can ultimately affect the way we think and feel. Does stress cause stomach pain? Can stress cause constipation? Yes, they are connected. But what can be done about it? How can we regulate these emotions and gastrointestinal distress? By looking at factors that affect our microbiome (communities of bacteria in your gut) we can regulate and encourage beneficial functions like developing immunity, boosting mood, and increasing metabolism. 

Diet and How it Regulates Gastrointestinal Distress

Clean, fresh, whole foods support a healthy microbiome. All gut bacteria need a variety of fuels to thrive. So why not provide the best possible food for them? Plant-based foods like grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit will help you feed your microbiome so that it can grow and multiply in number—and thus be more resilient against any stressors or illness. In other words: “you are what you eat.”

Avoid sugar. Sugar has a major effect on gastrointestinal distress as it generally increases bad bacteria that will feed on the healthy bacterial. Watch your protein intake. A low protein diet is better than a high-protein diet because it leads to fewer pathogenic bacteria. Less undigested proteins mean that your body can work more efficiently, which reduces the risk of metabolic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Illicit Drugs and Alcohol Interfere with Normal Functions

Alcohol takes a heavy toll on the stomach and its functions. The consumption of alcohol can lead to decreased gastric acidity which compromises the digestive process. This causes increased gas in the intestines that may cause bloating, abdominal pain, cramping, and ulcers due to chronic irritation.

Alcohol has long-term effects on both short-term health issues caused by being drunk. Vomiting and blackouts are key examples, but there are also other longer-lasting consequences. These include more serious complications like gastrointestinal bleeding, peptic ulcers, and gastric (stomach) cancer. 

There is still little research regarding how illicit drugs affect stomach functions. However, mind-altering, unregulated street drugs can manipulate your normal brain and central nervous system functions making it hard to decipher what’s actually happening in your stomach. These substances mask feelings and emotions, thus making it less likely you will take care of yourself.

Medications and the Effect on the Gut-Mind Connection

Antibiotics are the most widely prescribed drugs in human history, but their use has led to several negative effects on our gut microbiota. These effects can include a reduction of species diversity and metabolic activity. This widespread usage is leading us down a dangerous path as they also allow resistant strains. This is what leads to antibiotic-associated diarrhea and recurrent Clostridioides difficile (a form of life-threatening diarrhea) infections.

Multiple drugs have been shown to alter the composition of gut bacteria. For example, a recent study found that many non-antibiotic prescription medications also affect how your microbiome performs in vitro tests for different strains of bacteria. The categories that largest impact included laxatives, proton pump inhibitors (used to treat gastrointestinal distress), and Metformin (used to treat type 2 diabetes). 

Next time you’ve been prescribed any medication, be sure to discuss with your doctor how it will impact your gut microbiome. In many cases these medications are necessary, but if you focus on preventing illnesses, you won’t be faced with making this decision. 

Can Stress Cause Stomach Pain?

The bacteria in the gut can be altered by stress, which increases inflammation. The types of bacteria that either increase or decrease depend largely upon which type is present. Some are sensitive only to one condition while others respond more variably based on exposure times or environmental factors such as diet composition. 

In many more studies involving mice, short-chain fatty acids concentrations decreased with exposure to stress alone. SCFA’s are responsible for alleviating anxiety and depression. Lack of SCFA’s can also lead to an increase in body weight. Therefore, it can be concluded that stress causes weight gain as well as depression, anxiety, and stomach pain. 

Environmental Chemicals and Gastrointestinal Distress

Environmental chemicals are not as well-known for their effect on the microbiome, but recent studies have shown that they can alter it significantly. According to a study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, bisphenols (chemicals used to manufacture plastics) were found to decrease diversity by changing the composition of the microbiome. 

Bisphenols (BPA’s) are present in many items we use, including trace amounts in the food we eat. BPA’s are used in receipt paper, beverage can liners, water bottles, and medical equipment. BPA’s get ingested through food and beverages that have been contaminated. Sadly, studies have suggested that roughly 90% of the US population over six years old has some BPA in their system. 

Environmental chemicals can be directly responsible for negative health. This includes complications such as developmental defects, diabetes, liver disease, thyroid problems, obesity, and immune dysfunction. Usually, the gut microbiome can remedy many of the toxic side effects from these chemicals but with consistent exposure, microbiome will change and spark a chain of events leading to chronic health issues. 

All Disease Begins in the Gut

The gut and the brain are connected in ways that can be easily understood. When you think about how nervousness could cause nausea before a presentation you realize it’s not just “in your head.” And likewise, gastrointestinal disorders can cause feelings of anxiety and depression. Even though the connection is a bit more complex in hindsight, the feelings and emotions caused by your mind or gut are still easily interpreted.  

How Can I Fix My Gut-Mind Connection?

  • Focus on your diet, eat clean whole foods that consist of lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Follow up on any medications you are currently taking, be sure to ask your doctor for information regarding how they interact with your gut microbiome.
  • Avoid plastics when you can. Store your food in glass containers. 
  • Exercise, and find ways to mitigate stress like taking time for self-care. 
  • Get treatment for any mental health disorders that might be interfering with the health of your stomach. 
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol that may be interfering with either your stomach or brain’s natural functions. 

Sana Lake Recovery is Here to Help

In some cases, you may need professional help to get the health of your gut-mind connection back in harmony. Recognizing that there is a problem is the first step in making a change to a healthier and happier lifestyle. 

If you or a loved one is suffering from substance use disorder or mental health concerns Sana Lake is here to assist. We can help get your stomach health back on track and guide your progress to overall wellness.