What is the gut-brain connection?
The gut-brain connection refers to the link between the brain and your GI (gastrointestinal, or digestive) system. The brain is directly linked to the gut by the central nervous system, which controls how your food and fluids are broken down and then distributed through the body. But it has also been found that there is a closer link that is bidirectional between the brain and the gut, where both can influence each other.
This has been born out of the discovery of the enteric nervous system, which lies within the lining of the gastrointestinal system. Within this system there are over 100 million nerve cells which can operate independently of the brain, and it is believed that this is what plays a central role in the relationship between the gut and mental health.
This relationship can be felt every time we get hungry. The very thought of eating actually starts the digestive process, and starts to release digestive juices along the digestive tract before food even gets there. It can also work the other way as well; pain and discomfort in the gut in conditions such as IBS can lead to feelings of anxiety or distress.
Anxiety and gut health
Seeing how closely the gut and the brain work, it makes sense that they can affect each other to lead to anxiety. At a milder level, this can be seen when you have a stomach ache before having to give a presentation, or you feel nauseous before meeting new people. But at a more serious and long term level, it can lead to ongoing GI distress such as constipation or diarrhoea, bloating or pain in the abdomen, and changes to your appetite. These symptoms can exacerbate your sense of anxiety.
Research shows people with an existing GI disorder, such as colitis or IBS, will have flares more often when they are under psychological pressure or going through a bout of anxiety.
One of the mechanisms that is a suspected link between your gut health and anxiety is through the gut microbiota. The gut microbiota is a complex system of microorgansisms (mainly consisting of bacteria, both good and bad, as well as archaea, fungi and viruses) that live in the small and large intestine, and other areas along the digestive tract. The microbiome plays an important role in supporting the immune system, digesting and assimilating food, as well as affecting the brain and your mood. The microbiome is actually where some of the most important neurotransmitters involved in a healthy mood, like GABA, dopamine and norepinephrine are made. In fact, about 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin, which is important for regulating your mood and motivation, is produced in your gut.
How you can help yourself
When you are having both symptoms of anxiety and gut issues, it is important to address both due to their strong impact on each other. Keeping your gut healthy by:
- reducing the amount of processed foods you eat
- getting in lots of fresh fruit and veggies to feed the good bacteria
- and trying to eat at regular meal times can all help to keep your belly happy.
All of these behaviours can help to keep your belly happy. This can then in turn help to improve your mood by ensuring adequate levels of the feel good neurotransmitters and reducing anxiety provoking inflammation. And, from the other side, keeping anxiety at bay by getting enough sleep, doing some meditation or breathing exercises, and exercising regularly, will help to take the tension out of your digestive system.
If you are experiencing ongoing anxiety and digestive issues, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are able to help. If you would like any information about how your symptoms can be reduced by acupuncture, feel free to contact me at the clinic on 03 8774 5588 or at email@example.com. Alternatively, you can book an acupuncture appointment online.
Harvard Health Publishing (2021). The Gut-Brain Connection. (https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection)
Medical News Today (2022). Is there a link between gut health and anxiety? (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/gut-health-and-anxiety#managing-anxiety)