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The Gut as Your Second Brain: Gut-brain connection, anxiety and digestion

Kimberly England's picture
Human body skeleton and brain

Have you ever wondered how your stomach can give you butterflies? What about feeling physically sick, emotionally, spiritually and sometimes with dis-ease?


Your stomach is quite the complex system, to say the least. In many ways, humans may not be able to process the connection between the “gut and brain”, but it occurs in a manner that defies a knowing of its internal existence. The “gut and brain” can shake hands and talk to one another in such a way that can throw your overall balance into harmony or dis-harmony. So, change your perspective and you may very well change the overall well-being of your “brain and gut”.

If we look at the gut itself, we know that it can be the source of many illnesses including auto-immune disorders, nervous system disorders, psychiatric issues, bacterial infections and much more, but connect it to the brain and it can take on a whole other level of issues. No matter the medical issue, many studies show that the act of love, kindness, family and faith can sometimes heal a sick individual? Miracles happen all the time in ways we may never understand. Some miracles come in the form of prayer which can heal a person and defy a doctor’s sense of understanding. So, why couldn’t we heal the gut through the power of mind, love, kindness, faith, family, friends and good ole fashion gut flora food and probiotics? It cannot be a do or die situation, right? Is it that dismissive? We are seeing more and more discussions on how doctors send patients home to “get their affairs in order”. What if, a Doctor sent the patient home to heal with a new prescription like walking, aromatherapy, healing music, singing, acupuncture, message therapy or even self-healing affirmations? What if, instead of antibiotics or antidepressants that eventually kill off most of the gut flora, the patient is prescribed a balance of harmony, good bacteria through probiotics and juicing to thwart off bad bacteria? A variety of circumstances can change the gut enteric nervous system ENS and the brain for better or worse. It really is a choice.

According to an article published by John Hopkins Medicine"The Brain-Gut Connection", Scientists have discovered the gut is like your “second brain” or “little brain” and receives signals from the enteric nervous system (ENS). Hidden in the walls of the digestive system are links between digestion, mood, health and the way you think and feel. The ENS is not so little though, as it is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus to rectum. The ENS’ main role is to control digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient (absorption to elimination). That’s a lot of (nervous cells)!

The ENS may trigger big emotional shifts experienced by people coping with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional bowel problems such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, pain and stomach upset. “For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around,” Pasricha says. Researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes or neurological disorders. “These new findings may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety,” Pasricha says. “That’s important, because up to 30 to 40 percent of the population has (functional bowel problems) at some point.”

Understanding New Gut Treatments in a Conventional or Unconventional Manner

While we gain a better understanding of the ENS-CNS (central nervous system) connection, we are led to more knowledge of how the complex nervous system can spiral a person into a depressive state, not just from pain of the gut, but in a person’s mind, body and soul. One example is IBS and bowel-disorder treatments, where antidepressants and a variety mind-body therapies are used to help the “gut and brain shake hands” and understand one another. You may ask why would any physician use an antidepressant for tummy troubles? It is sometimes simpler than we can imagine. It is not because the problem is within the patient’s head, but it is because an antidepressant slows and calms down the nervous system to improve communication of the “gut and brain”. Antidepressants allow the patient time to heal the connection and has nothing to do with the other spectrum of the special microbial system balanced or unbalanced in the stomach.

Medication in my view, is still not a remedy unless the patient can pass the muster of controlling their nervous system, their thoughts, or even the food they eat. On an unconventional note, sometimes a good ole cup of daily chamomile tea during a stressful moment from the tummy, probiotics or good thoughts can ease the emotional woes and allow for healing. There are many other alternatives for healing the “gut and brain” through calming the nervous system as well. Try a good walk, change of perspective, prayer, love, a small touch and friendship. No matter how a person chooses to “calm down” their nervous system, the environment needs to be calming also.

In another perspective by Mercola, our gut is comprised of nearly 100 trillion bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms called (“the gut microbiome.”). Advancing science has made it quite clear that these organisms play a major role in your health, both mental and physical. Your body is in fact composed of more bacteria and other microorganisms than actual cells, and you have more bacterial DNA than human DNA.

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Where the connection between your gut and mental health appears to be so strong, one could apprise in unconventional medicine, the use of “probiotics” may very well replace antidepressant drugs as it may very well be root of your gut and mental health. In fact, the root of our health is where we should be searching to heal the body. One day, the hope is that chronic mental health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder, may be eliminated in using probiotics daily and solving the gut issues altogether.

In an article published by Harvard Health Medical, Harvard Medical School, the gut-brain connection by far is no joke; it can link anxiety to stomach problems and vice versa. Where we feel a “gut-wrenching” experience or other situations, it can cause us to feel nauseous, anger, anxiety, sadness, and elation which are all triggered feelings, emotions and symptoms in the gut. It’s no wonder our gastrointestinal tract is so sensitive to emotion. The psychology of it all combined with physical factors that cause pain and other bowel symptoms influencing the actual physiology of the gut can affect contractions of the GI tract, make inflammation worse, or perhaps even more susceptible to infection.

abdominal pain

Gut-brain connection, anxiety and digestion
Are your stomach or intestinal problems — such as heartburn, abdominal cramps, or loose stools — related to stress? Watch for these other common symptoms of stress and discuss them with your doctor. Together you can come up with strategies to help you deal with the stressors in your life, and also ease your digestive discomforts. Here are a list of symptoms below from Harvard Health Medical, Harvard Medical School.

Physical symptoms

  • Stiff or tense muscles, especially in the neck and shoulders
  • Headaches
  • Sleep problems
  • Shakiness or tremors
  • Recent loss of interest in sex
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Restlessness

Behavioral symptoms

  • Procrastination
  • Grinding teeth
  • Difficulty completing work assignments
  • Changes in the amount of alcohol or food you consume
  • Taking up smoking, or smoking more than usual
  • Increased desire to be with or withdraw from others
  • Rumination (frequent talking or brooding about stressful situations)

Emotional symptoms

  • Crying
  • Overwhelming sense of tension or pressure
  • Trouble relaxing
  • Nervousness
  • Quick temper
  • Depression
  • Poor concentration
  • Trouble remembering things
  • Loss of sense of humor
  • Indecisiveness

Who wouldn’t be depressed after all that? So, get outdoors, walk, laugh, love, sing, dance, get creative and happy or do whatever makes your heart sing. I mean your “gut and brain."

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