Have you ever used the saying “butterflies in my stomach?” For years we have implicitly intertwined the functioning of the gut with the mind. In recent years, advances in research have enabled us to see that there is in fact a very strong bidirectional relationship between the brain and the gut. It is known as the brain-gut-axis.
The enteric nervous system is a network of around 100 million neurons, located in the gut. It is termed the “second brain” due to the fact that it can operate independently from the brain and the spinal cord (the central nervous system), unlike any nerves that lie outside of the central nervous system. This means that messages can be formed in the gut and travel up to the brain, influencing the way we feel, think and behave. We now know that large quantities of a neurotransmitter that impacts mood, serotonin, are created in the gut and move throughout the gastrointestinal tract and your bloodstream. How we look after our gut, with the foods we eat and the regularity of our eating, is important for our mental wellbeing as well as our physical wellbeing.
As the relationship between mind and gut is bidirectional, processes in the mind can influence the functioning in the gut also. Research shows that psychological approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy can also help reduce symptom severity in gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. Mindfulness has also been shown to increase levels of dopamine (another neurotransmitter that affects mood) in the gut.
Have you ever been stressed and needed to go to the toilet more? Or the opposite, not been able to go at all? Mental events can and do have a strong effect on the gut. Therefore, as important as it is to take care of our diet, it is also very important to adequately attend to psychological stress.
Take care of your gut and your gut takes care of you.
Author: Dr Sula Windgassen