January 16, 2022
At first glance, a connection between your gut and your brain seems a bit far-fetched. But anatomy bears out this connection. You might be surprised to find out that tucked away in the walls of your intestines something akin to a “second brain” and it’s known as the ENS (the enteric nervous system.) Now don’t make the mistake of believing that your gut-brain can write a novel or solve a math problem. But the ENS does communicate with the brain between your ears.
This connection may explain why people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as well as other so-called functional bowel problems such as bloating, stomach upset, diarrhea, and constipation, also often suffer from anxiety and depression. Conventional wisdom used to say that it was the anxiety and depression that caused the intestinal symptoms, but now some researchers are finding evidence that it is the other way around, with the gut sending signals to the brain that are the triggers for the emotional symptoms.
This explains why medications such as antidepressants as well as some types of psychotherapy can be effective in helping to treat some digestive disorders such as IBS. And this is not because the medications are only working in the brain, it’s because they also influence the ENS in the gut.
One of the more fascinating areas of research is the interaction between the microbes in your gut (your microbiome) and your emotional and mental health. The human gut plays host to literally trillions of microbes. Research studies show that the human microbiome may have a starring role in conditions such as epilepsy, autism, and depression. Some of the molecules these microbes release may even travel to the brain, although the mechanism for this travel remains unknown.
There is also a direct nerve connection between the gut and the brain by way of the vagus nerve, which emerges from the skull then travels down through the chest and abdomen sending branches to every major organ, including the gut. The word “vagus” means “wanderer” in Latin, and is an apt descriptor for a nerve that has such a large presence in the body.
In a 2011 study, scientists fed a specific probiotic bacteria (L. rhamnosus JB-1) to lab mice. The mice then produced less corticosterone (a stress-inducing hormone) and also displayed less behavior associated with anxiety and depression. The mice who received the bacteria also had changes in the level of a protein receptor produced in the brain which binds to the neurotransmitter GABA, which has anti-anxiety effects.
Interestingly, when mice who had their vagus nerves cut and were fed the same microbe, these changes did not occur. So it seems clear the vagus nerve is in some way involved in the mechanism by which the gut microbiome communicates with the brain.
Research on the gut-brain connection is still in its infancy, and there is much work to be done. But exciting new therapeutic options appear to be on the horizon, both for treating gut-related illnesses such as IBS and other functional bowel disorders, as well as mental health disorders such as depression. These options include new drugs, new probiotics, innovative psychotherapeutic therapies, dietary interventions, and more.