Your Gut and Your Brain are Secret BFFS

When we picture the nervous system, most of us probably imagine a little pink brain connected to a curvy white spine. And while that picture is certainly accurate, it’s not actually the whole story. What’s missing from that mental picture is the all-important enteric nervous system, the complex web of over 100 million nerve cells that line our digestive tract. In fact, among scientists within the neurobiology field, this intricate system innervating our gut is often referred to as our “second brain”.

At some point in our lives, we have all gotten a glimpse into this complex relationship between our brains and our guts. Ever felt “butterflies in your stomach”? Or gotten so nervous or stressed about something that you seemed to give yourself a stomachache, or even an ulcer? As we have all experienced at some point, how we think and feel emotionally can have a profound impact on how we feel in our tummies. However, new research is slowly revealing that the gut-brain relationship may not just be a one-way street; in other words, what’s going on in our gut might actually be governing our mental health!

Spurred on by the interesting observation that people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other bowel disorders have higher than average instances of depression and anxiety, researchers at Johns Hopkins and other academic institutions are finding evidence that our enteric nervous system may be communicating and signaling mood change in our central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). How our intestines go about causing these amazing changes is still a bit of a mystery, but one of the emerging theories is that it all lies in the activity of the bacteria in our gut!

Our guts are home to up to a 1,000 different species of bacteria, many of which help us not only be disgusting our food but by producing vital neurotransmitters and metabolites for our brains. In various experimental studies, European scientists have found that influencing the level and type of bacteria in the guts of mice (whose nervous systems are remarkably similar to humans) produced profound mood changes, with some rats even displaying signs of depression and anxiety when deprived of the right gut bacteria. Moreover, when their gut bacteria was properly restored, these rats regained normal affect and neurological response. How crazy is that??

All of this new research gives scientists exciting new options to pursue in the treatment of mental health disorders. Perhaps in the future, instead of prescribing an SSRI to treat your depression, your doctor might be handing you some specially formulated probiotics to make sure the important bacteria in your gut are happy and well nourished! Until then, there are other easy ways to help your good gut bacteria thrive. Fermented foods like kombucha (a fizzy, tangy tea-like drink), kimchi (a spicy cabbage condiment popular in Southeast Asia), and kefir (a kind of yogurt drink) are full of pro-biotic nutrients that your gut needs, and they can all be found at most grocery stores!

If you are interested in learning about all the fascinating new research in this realm, please check out the links below!


Written By Helena Lorenz, B.S.

Heights Family Counseling Clinical Intake Specialist