By Blair Doucette, MScN
You know that gut feeling you get when something is wrong? Or those butterflies that flit around your stomach when you get nervous? There’s a reason you’re able to feel emotions in your stomach. It’s called the gut-brain-axis and it acts essentially like a highway of information between your GI tract and your brain. But did you also know that this information superhighway can go two ways? Of course, stressful moments impact our stomachs and can make us feel sick, but were you aware that poor gut health can also impact your mental health. This gut-brain highway influences our brain function and its physical structure(!), moods, emotions, and other behaviors. Even more impactful, the gut-brain-axis extends beyond the central nervous system and into the endocrine, neural and immune pathways! It’s for these reasons, and so many more, that it’s so important we pay attention to our gut health.
Psychosocial factors can influence the actual physiology of your gut. This means that chronic stress and anxiety can affect the movement and status of your GI tract. This is why many functional GI conditions are actually treated with therapy and stress reduction techniques. It has been proven that psychologically-based approaches to digestive upset have shown greater improvements than with conventional medical treatment alone. Further, your gut is home to trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms, which is why it’s so important to support the development of the right species.
Now since this is a two-way street, we know that gut inflammation will also play a leading role in mental health categories. After the brain, the gut contains the body’s largest number of neurons. Honestly, this fact blew me away! I never thought of the gut actually containing neurons. With the use of neuroimaging, we’ve been able to see the connection between gut microbes and how the brain processes certain inputs like stress and depression. We’ve been able to see the direct link between certain gut bacteria (or the lack of) and psychiatric disorders like anxiety, depression, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders. Additionally, inflammation of the GI tract also releases certain neurotransmitters that influence brain function, sending a cascade of chain reactions that further leads to increased anxiety, depression, and memory loss. These proinflammatory responses also stimulate what is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Dysregulation of this axis is one of the most reliable biological markers for major depression and anxiety.
There just seems like there’s so much to know and even more to learn about our gut microbiomes, the behavior of our neurological systems, and the connection between the two. While we’re learning more all the time, many functional medicine practitioners and holistic healers are currently helping their patients by applying methods that support both of these systems. If you think you might be interested in learning more, check out our next Woodside Wellness Chat on June 13th. We’ll be hosting Sara Fields as she discusses dysfunction in the GI tract that can help take your health to the next level. For more information and to claim your seat check out our website. This is a free event but seating is limited and it’s filling up fast!