The gut is said to be our second brain. What is true is that the two are connected in multiple ways – this is how the health of one can affect the other.
Expressions like “think with your stomach” or “butterflies in the stomach“reveal the hidden link between the intestine and the brain. A link that is not only symbolic: in recent years various scientific researches have shown that poor bowel health brings with it stress, anxiety and mood disorders. “The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines. For example, just the thought of eating can release stomach juices before the food gets there, “the experts write.Harvard University. “This connection goes both ways. A troubled gut can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s intestinal discomfort can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, depression ”.
Stress: when it depends on the gut
Our intestine has direct access to the brain: communication between the two organs occurs through the path of the vagus nerve, which plays a fundamental role in the body’s ability to rest and digest. When harmful bacteria proliferate in the intestines, they can cause inflammation of the vagus nerve and increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which will lead to increased stress and anxiety. Put simply, some mood disorders could be down to our choices at the table: ultra-processed foods high in sugars, refined carbohydrates and saturated fat not only offer minimal nutritional value, but alter bowel function. Conversely, whole foods and fruits and vegetables have been shown to be rich in nutrients and beneficial gut bacteria that can help fight inflammation and reduce anxiety and stress as well.
Bacteria and the brain: the role of the intestine
Gut microbes also affect our brains. The trillions of bacteria that live in the gut produce chemicals that affect the functioning of the brain, including short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). These can affect brain function. For example, some scientists have found that propionate, an immune mediator and produced by gut bacteria, can reduce the feeling of hunger and the activity in the brain related to food cravings.
Does the gut affect mood?
A 2020 study published in Cureus showed a strong connection between the gut microbiome and mental well-being. The researchers concluded that gut health could have a significant impact on stress, anxiety, depression and cognition. It is no coincidence that, in recent years, many studies have focused on specific strains of probiotic bacteria, the so-called psychobiotics, which appear to inhibit inflammation and reduce cortisol levels, resulting in improved symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The action of serotonin
The gut and the brain are also connected through neuro-transmitters, chemicals that regulate feelings and emotions. The best known is serotonin, the molecule of good mood, which has an anti-depressant effect and also helps to control the biological clock. Interestingly, many of these neuro-transmitters are also produced by intestinal cells and the trillions of microbes that live there. A large amount of serotonin is produced in the intestine. Gut microbes also produce gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neuro-transmitter that helps control feelings of fear and anxiety. The good news is that studies in laboratory mice have shown that some probiotics can increase GABA production and thus reduce anxiety and depression-like behavior.
Bowel and clouded mind
A study published in Annals of Gastroenterology in 2015 found that a healthy gut is critical for proper cognitive function. Common gastrointestinal disorders that can cause mental clouding they include celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine (SIBO), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and inflammatory bowel disease. The gut microbiome helps communication between the external and internal environment of the body and any imbalance in the microbiome, due to malabsorption of nutrients or dehydration (for example following diarrhea) can lead to bloating, brain fog and headaches.
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