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Last Updated on July 5, 2020 by Paula Dunbar
Who’d have thought that the gut and brain are connected? What is the gut and brain connection? The medical world has been buzzing about the Gut-Brain connection in recent years. We’ll get into this connection and the communication that happens between the brain and the gut. I think you’ll find it fascinating as I have.
Then we’ll talk about what can be done about problems and how to help this connection work better. It also might explain some symptoms you’re having. We’ll wrap up with a summary and some potential ways to improve this connection.
My sources for research are Harvard Medical School, Ruairi Robertson, Ph.D. of Healthline and the U.S. Government’s repository of health information, National Institutes of Health, US National Library of Medicine. You will also find a TedTalks video of Robertson describing this connection below.
A Few Ways You Can Tell The Gut and Brain Are Connected…
We have used certain terms for years, like ‘gut-wrenching’ experience or ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. Harvard (n.d.) mentions these terms as a way to demonstrate we kind of know already our stomach is connected to our emotions. And hence, our brains. What is interesting is that one can affect the other. It’s not always one or the other affecting the other.
Those observations tell us it’s real. And now research has proven the gut and brain connection.
It turns out the gut and brain are connected through the central nervous system and the endocrine and immune systems. Scientists and doctors are calling it the ‘gut-brain axis’. Robertson in Healthline (2017) says that both are connected physically and biochemically, in several ways.
The nervous system is a big one, as the vagus nerve (one of the largest nerves in the body) connects the brain and gut. Not only that, but the immune system also connects them biochemically. We’ll break these down next.
Nervous System and the Vagus Nerve
So the vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves connecting the gut and brain and it functions as a two-way street. It is a big factor in how we feel and our moods. Also included in this discussion are neurotransmitters. Scientists discovered about 500 million neurons in the gut alone. These connect your gut to your brain along with the nervous system.
The gut produces one particular neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Side note: there is a supplement called GABA that calms the nervous system. It’s listed on the Nootropics page. GABA helps control feelings of anxiety. An increase in GABA keeps you calmer.
Some neurotransmitters are produced in the brain as well which control feelings and emotions. So you can see that one affects the other when neurotransmitters are produced in both places.
Effect of Gut Health on the Brain and Mental Health
The microbes in your gut produce many other chemicals that affect how the brain works. (Robertson, 2018). Some reduce our appetite, some affect inflammation through our immune system.
But it has been found that inflammation in the gut is related to several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression. It is vital to understand this connection between the brain and the gut and also to know what you can do to help things work properly.
Not only microbes, but hormones are released from the gut as well. In the body, all of the microorganisms are referred to as the Microbiome. In a particular part of the body, it’s referred to as the microbiota of the gut, or skin, or whatever the focus body function is.
It was found that our microbiome is developed initially in the womb. They researched pregnant women who took probiotics for a few weeks before birth (NCBI, 2017). The infants had a much better-developed microbiome than infants whose mothers didn’t take probiotics. This also shows that microbiota crosses the blood barrier. This microbiome in infants carries over into adult life. After the video, we’ll talk about pre and probiotics.
Some symptoms of mental anguish or problems could be from the gut. Or they could be starting in your brain and then affecting your gut. Are you feeling stressed from outside sources? It might be starting in your brain and affecting your gut. Are you feeling anxious without a ‘good reason’? It could be starting in your gut.
Here is a TedTalk video of Robertson discussing these developments in science. The video is from 2015, so a few years before his article:
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Pre and Probiotics
Since we now know that gut bacteria (microbiota) affects brain health and ‘feelings’, we can discuss prebiotics and probiotics to help not only the gut but also the brain.
- Prebiotics are just fuel for the [good] bacteria in the large intestine. Not doing a lot on their own, they just help the existing probiotics in the large intestine to thrive.
- Probiotics are the bacteria that help digestion. When these are out of balance, that’s when you see stomach upset and possible brain upset.
Some people with irritable bowel syndrome and mild-to-moderate anxiety or depression took Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 for six weeks had significantly improved symptoms. Most probiotic supplements include this one.
Taking a probiotic could significantly help not only your gut but your brain and symptoms of anxiety and stress. It reduces inflammation in the gut and gives it the bacteria it needs (or replenishes) to help you feel great.
This, in turn, helps your brain and moods. Anxiety and depression can be reduced. Some people even take a probiotic as a treatment for anxiety and depression. Best to talk to your doctor about this.
Probiotics also normalize cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that interacts with many cells in the body. With some cells, it lowers blood sugar, others it acts as an anti-inflammatory and still others, it helps with memory formation. 🙂
Prebiotics are fibers that are fermented by gut bacteria. They are useful in the small intestine where digestion is moving along after the stomach. Additionally, these are also available as a supplement to help the entire digestive tract.
Knowing what we know now, taking pre and probiotics is a no brainer. There is no good reason not to. Moreover, the NCBI recommends people try probiotics instead of taking mood-altering medications. Ask your doctor. I’m including some links to what I consider good quality supplements to help you achieve your best gut health and brain health!
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The Gut-Brain Connection is Real
Many studies have been done to determine the connection between the gut and the brain is real. Further, even more studies will be done so that scientists can understand more about it. Interestingly, it is said that the gut is the second mind, due to its neurotransmitter abilities and its ability to communicate (chemically) with the brain. Take good care of it!
I hope you enjoyed this article and learned something new or reinforced things you’ve already heard or read. Please leave comments, questions or your experience or observations below! I’ll be sure to respond. Thank you!
Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. (n.d.). Retrieved 8/4/2019 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection
Robertson, R. (2018). The Gut-Brain Connection: How it Works and The Role of Nutrition. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/gut-brain-connection#section2
U.S National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. (2017). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5641835/
Watson, K. (2017). Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: What’s the Difference?https://www.healthline.com/health/prebiotics-vs-probiotics
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