Did you know that our brain and gut are connected?

Mar 4, 2024 | Behaviour, Children, Toileting

The brain and gut are two parts of the body that seem unrelated but, they are actually very closely connected. In fact, the connection between the brain and the gut is so strong that it is often referred to as the “brain-gut connection”. In this blog post, we will explore the brain-gut connection and how it affects our overall health and wellbeing. 

So, what is the brain-gut connection?  

The brain-gut connection also known as the brain-gut axis, refers to the bidirectional communication between the brain and the Enteric Nervous System that connects cognitive and digestive behaviour. Like the brain, the gastrointestinal tract has a nervous system that includes neurons, neurotransmitters and electrical signals called the Enteric Nervous System or ENS. The ENS is made up of two thin layers with more than 100 million nerve cells in them, including in the spinal cord. These cells line the gastrointestinal tract, controlling blood flow, and secretions to help us digest food. Our ENS communicates with our brain via the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve helps to regulate neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine that play an important role in regulating mood and focus. It also stimulates the release of hormones such as ghrelin which helps to regulate appetite and cholecystokinin, which helps to regulate digestion. 

Now, you might think, “this all sounds good and technical but how does it apply to us in everyday life?” 

We have all heard of sayings such as “gut feeling”, and “butterflies in the stomach”. Certain stressful situations make us feel “nauseous”. We use these expressions for a reason. This is how we can say that the gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotions. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation – all of these feelings and others can trigger symptoms in the gut. The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines through our nervous system we talked about above. For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways, meaning a troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause OR the product of anxiety or stress. 

Research has shown that children with learning difficulties and behavioural problems are significantly more prone to digestive upsets such as constipation and/or diarrhea than the children who don’t exhibit these symptoms. Unhappy messages from the gut can wreak havoc and cause profound and unexpected results to the emotional and cognitive centres of the main brain. 

Hence, it can be important to build a healthy gut to promote a happy and healthy brain.  

To support a healthy and varied gut environment: 

  • Consider foods with rich probiotics such as fermented food like kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt and/or taking a quality probiotic supplement. These can work to help our gut bacteria by enhancing their function and reducing the abundance of the bad bacteria in our gut.  
  • Consider eating enough fibre which acts as a food source for the good bacteria in our gut.  
  • Speak to a naturopath or integrative doctor to investigate if there are any food intolerances or allergies e.g. dairy, gluten which could irritate and inflame our gut when consumed.   

Author: Kaylee Cho