Your gut and your brain are in constant communication with one another. What are they saying?
Ever had “butterflies in your stomach”? How about a “gut instinct”? Or, maybe a “gut-wrenching experience”? When a “gut check” tells you how you feel, it’s tempting to think that it’s all in your head. But the truth is, when instincts tell you to “go with your gut”, your gut really is trying to tell you something.
There really is a strong connection between your brain and your digestive tract, and they are in constant communication with one another. An incredible amount of information travels between your gut and your brain – so much so, that the nervous system that resides in your digestive tract is often called the body’s “second brain”.
Your Body’s Two Brains
The connection between your brain and your “second brain” in your digestive tract is something you’ve probably experienced in the form of a “gut reaction”. You know the feeling when you get some bad news, or have a difficult conversation with someone. Your gut tells you exactly how you’re feeling. When stress or anxiety strikes, your brain sends a signal to your gut – and the next thing you know, you’ve got a churning stomach.
The signals travel in the other direction, too – from gut to brain. This system alerts the “first brain” if you’ve eaten something you shouldn’t have, and also keeps tabs on your hunger level and your mood. When something in your
digestive system isn’t quite right, an alert is sent to your brain – often before you even notice that anything is wrong.
Your Gut and Your Mood
It’s clear that certain emotions can trigger a digestive response, but there is also speculation that the reverse may also be true – conditions in your gut may influence how you feel.
Residing in your digestive tract are thousands of species of microbes, which make up the “gut microbiome”. And the health and makeup of this mini-ecosystem that resides in your gut may have an effect on mood.
Studies in mice have suggested that introducing certain strains of bacteria into the digestive tract (specifically, two called lactobacillus and bifidobacterium) can reduce “anxiety-like” behaviour in the mice1.
The thinking is that these two strains of bacteria (commonly found in yogurt) alter the bacterial makeup in the gut in such a way that there is an effect on brain chemistry - perhaps by stimulating the production of certain brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) that play a key role in determining mood.
Whether the same holds true for humans is yet to be seen, but there is no question that your brain and gut are well-connected – so it makes sense that keeping your digestive system in tip-top shape is vital to your sense of well-being.
The steps you take to keep yourself healthy are the same ones that promote digestive health, too. A diet that includes plenty of fibre from colourful fruits and vegetables and whole grains, adequate hydration, a source of probiotics and regular exercise are all key factors. Fibres help promote regularity (which could affect your mood!), and certain fibres also promote the growth of the “good” bacteria in your microbiome.
Taking time to enjoy your meals helps, too. When you slow down you may eat less food, and you’ll probably be less stressed – which means you’ll be sending signals to ‘both’ your brains. When you eat more slowly, it allows time for your gut to tell your brain that you’re full - and for your brain to tell you that you’re more relaxed, too!
1Dinan TG, Cryan JF. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2013; 25(9):713-9.
MS, RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND,
Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training, Herbalife Nutrition.