Heard Of The Gut-Brain Connection?
No? Neither had I until 2 years ago. But once I did, my understanding of my whole ‘self’ made sense to me. Suffer from IBS, anxiety, unexplained feelings of fatigue, stress or ‘the blues’? Then you need to read this.
We humans are very proud of our complex brains. We hold our brains responsible for everything we experience in life – we think up experiences of wellbeing, happiness or satisfaction inside our own heads. When we are insecure, anxious or depressed, we worry that the computer in our heads might be broken.
However, recently, the gut is the organ that is currently causing researchers to rethink its role; in fact, scientists are beginning to question the view that the brain is the sole ruler of the body…
We Actually Have A Gut-Brain…!
The gut’s network of nerves is called the ‘gut brain’ because it is just as large and chemically complex as the grey matter in our heads. If the gut was solely responsible for transporting food and producing the occasional burp, such a sophisticated nervous system would be such a waste of energy. No body would create such a network just to enable us to break wind. There must be more to it than that.
We humans have known for a while something that science is only now discovering: our gut feeling is responsible for how we feel. We are ‘scared ****less’ or we can be ‘pooing our pants’ with fear. We can’t get our ‘arse into gear’. We ‘swallow’ our disappointment and need time to ‘digest’ a defeat. A nasty comment leaves a ‘bad taste in the mouth’. When we fall in love, we get ‘butterflies in our stomach’. Our ‘self’ is created in our head and our gut – no longer just in language, but increasingly also in the lab.
The Gut And Brain Cooperate…
Cooperation between the gut and the brain begins very early in life. Together, they are responsible for a large proportion of our emotional world. When we are babies, we love the feeling of a full stomach, get upset when we are hungry or cry and moan with wind. Familiar people feed, change and burp us. It’s clear that our infant ‘self’ consists of the gut and the brain. As we get older, we increasingly experience the world through our senses. We no longer throw a tantrum when we don’t like food at a restaurant, but the connection between gut and brain does not disappear; it simply becomes more refined. A gut that does not feel good can affect our mood and a healthy, well-nourished gut can improve our sense of well being.
The first study of the effect of intestinal care on healthy human brains was published in 2013. The researchers assumed there would be no visible effect on humans. The results they came up with were surprising – not only for them, but for the entire research community. After four weeks of taking a mixture of beneficial gut bacteria, some of the areas of the subjects brains were unmistakeably altered, especially the areas responsible for processing emotions and pain.
When a gut is irritated, its connection to the brain can make life unpleasant. This shows up on brain scans. In one experiment, the activity in the brains of volunteers was imaged while a small balloon was inflated inside their intestine. Healthy subjects showed normal brain activity, with no notable emotional changes. When patients with irritable bowels were subjected to the same procedure, however, there were clear indications of activity in the emotional centre of the brain normally associated with unpleasant feelings. The patients felt uneasy, although they had not endured anything untoward.
How This Connects To Irritable-Bowel…
Irritable-bowel syndrome is often characterised by an unpleasant bloated feeling or gurgling in the abdomen and a susceptibility to diarrhoea or constipation. This can be caused by tiny but persistent micro-inflammations, bad gut flora or undetected food intolerances. Despite a wealth of recent research, some doctors still dismiss patients with irritable-bowel syndrome as hypochondriacs or of no real concern, because their tests show no visible damage to the gut. Sufferers also have an above-average incidence of anxiety or depressive disorders. And like patients with irritable-bowel syndrome, sufferers of Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis also show increased rates of depression and anxiety.
Some researchers have been studying how to make the threshold between the gut and the brain less porous. This is important not only for patients with intestinal problems, but for all of us. Stress is thought to be among the most important stimuli ‘discussed’ by the brain and the gut. When the brain senses a major problem (such as time pressure or anger), it wants to solve it. To do so, it needs energy, which it borrows mainly from the gut. The gut is informed of the emergency situation via the sympathetic nerve fibres and is instructed to obey the brain in this stressful period. It decides to save energy on digestion, producing less mucous and reducing the blood supply.
However, this system is not designed for long-term use. If the brain constantly thinks it is in an emergency situation, it begins to take advantage of the gut’s ‘compliance’. When that happens, the gut is forced to send unpleasant signals to the brain to say it is no longer willing to be ‘exploited’. This negative stimulus can cause fatigue, loss of appetite, general feelings of unwellness or diarrhoea. As with emotional vomiting in response to upsetting situations, the gut reacts by ridding itself of food to save energy so it is available to the brain. The difference is that real stress situations can continue for much longer than minor upsets do. If the gut has to continue to forego energy in favour of the brain, its health will eventually suffer. A reduced blood supply and a thinner protective layer of mucous weaken the gut walls. The immune cells that dwell in the gut wall begin to secrete large amounts of signal substances that make the gut brain increasingly sensitive and lower the first threshold. Periods of stress mean the brain borrows energy and, as we all know, good budgeting is always better than running up too many debts.
I feel this had a great deal to do with my IBS.
Stress Is Unhygienic…
One theory proposed by research bacteriologists is that stress is unhygienic. The altered circumstances that stress creates in the gut allow different bacteria to survive there than in periods of low stress. Stress kind of ‘changes the weather’ in the gut. This makes us not just the victims of our own gut bacteria, but also the ‘gardeners’ of our body’s ‘ecosystem’. It also means that our gut is capable of making us feel the negative effects, long after the period of stress is over.
Our Gut Could Influence Behaviour…
The theory that our gut is involved not only in our feelings and in making ‘gut decisions’, but may also influence our behaviour, is the subject of various research projects. One team designed an experiment using two different strains of mice with very well-researched behavioural characteristics. Members of one type of mice are more timid and docile than those belonging to the other type, which are more curious and gregarious. The researchers gave the mice a mixture of antibiotics that only affect the gut, wiping out their entire gut flora. (This also happened to me – I was on acne preventing antibiotics for years). They then fed the animals with gut bacteria that were typical of the other mouse type. Behaviour tests showed they had swapped roles – the timid mice became more gregarious and the gregarious mice became more timid. This shows that the gut can influence behaviour – at least in mice. The results cannot yet be applied to humans as scientists do not yet know enough about the various bacteria involved, the gut brain in general or about the gut-brain axis.
Mealtimes Must Always Be Stress-Free…!
Until scientists have filled in those gaps in their knowledge, we can make use of the facts we already know to improve gut health. It starts with the little things like mealtimes, for example, which should be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. The dinner table should be a stress-free zone, with no place for arguing or announcements like “You will remain at the table until you’ve finished the food on your plate!” and without passing on your ‘preparing the dinner stress’ to the people you have just cooked for. This is important for adults, but it is vital for small children, whose gut brain develops in parallel with their head brain. The earlier in life that mealtime calm is introduced, the better. Stress of any kind activates nerves that inhibit the digestive process, which means we not only extract less nutrition from our food, but we also take longer to digest it, putting the gut under unnecessary strain.
Final Thoughts About The Gut-Brain…
95 per cent of the serotonin we produce is manufactured in the cells of our gut. Anyone who suffers from anxiety or depression should remember that an unhappy gut can be the cause of an unhappy mind. Sometimes, the gut has a perfect right to be unhappy, if it is dealing with an undetected food intolerance for example. We should not always blame depression on the brain or on our life circumstances – there is much more to us than that.
Do you suffer from IBS/digestive issues, anxiety, depression, fatigue, stress? Contact me to discuss how I can help you.