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You’ve probably heard of the sayings “butterflies in your stomach,” “gut wrenching,” and “gut feeling.” As it turns out, there is more to these metaphors than meets the eye.
We know that a healthy immune system relies on a healthy digestive system. But evidence also suggests a link between what's in your gut and what's in your head; and the health of one has a lot to do with the health of the other.
The gastrointestinal (GI) system and the brain are intimately connected through a two way continuum called the brain-gut axis. Each sends signals to the other, which can trigger its own set of symptoms.
The GI tract is sensitive to emotion. Anxiety, stress, depression or other psychological factors can cause GI issues. You may feel nauseated before giving a speech, or have stomach pain during stressful times.
On the flip side, the mind is also sensitive to the health of the gut. Problems in the gut can send signals to the brain that trigger mood changes. Some studies suggest a link between an imbalance of bacteria in the gut and a variety of behavioral problems. This may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) develop depression and anxiety.
Some scientists even refer to the nerve cells lining your GI tract as your “second brain.” As a Johns Hopkins expert states, this ‘brain in your gut’ is “revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think.”
Given how closely the gut and brain interact, could healing the gut be a starting place for treating mental illnesses like anxiety and depression?
Knowing that the mind and gut essentially talk to each other, experts are finding that therapies for one may help the other. Gastroenterologists may treat IBS with antidepressants to calm symptoms by acting on nerve cells in the gut. Psychological interventions, like cognitive behavioral therapy, may also be used to improve digestive symptoms by improving communication between the mind and the gut. Some studies link taking probiotics (which promote a healthy gut) with reduced feelings of stress and anxiety.
So, next time you hear “listen to your gut,” really listen. Do what you can to keep it healthy. My gut tells me you may just feel a little happier and a little less stressed.
What are your thoughts about the mind-gut connection? Tell us in the below comments.
Learn more about gastrointestinal services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.
Learn more about behavioral health services at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.
Melissa Kreiter, APN is a family psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) with Linden Oaks Medical Group.
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