There may be more validity to the statement “go with your gut” than you previously realized. The gut-brain axis refers to the bi-directional communication that goes on between your enteric nervous system (ENS) and central nervous system (CNS), and research is showing that what’s happening in your gut has a significant impact on your mood. In this post I’m going to explore what the enteric nervous system is, it’s connection to the brain, and how it impacts mood.
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What is the enteric nervous system?
Your ENS is a relatively autonomous component of the nervous system. It contains a range of neuronal circuits that are responsible for motor function, local blood flow, mucosal secretion and transport, and regulates endocrine and immune functions.1 Your ENS is called the “second brain” because of its reliance on the same type of neurotransmitters and neurons found in your brain and spinal cord. The ENS senses food in your gut and signals muscle cells to begin the intestinal contractions necessary for digestion.2
How are the brain and gut connected?
The gut-brain axis refers to the network between your brain and your gut that enable them to communicate. One of the largest nerves in the gut-brain axis is the vagus nerve, which sends messages bidirectionally between your brain and gut. Neurotransmitters also play a critical role in this connection, and many neurotransmitters – including serotonin – are also created by the cells and microbes of your gut. Other players in the connection between your gut and brain include your immune system.3
What does this connection mean for mental health?
We have a ways to go in truly uncovering and understanding the role the ENS plays in mental health, however, there is research that suggests the ENS plays an important role. For instance, studies have demonstrated that anxiety-prone mice are calmer when given probiotics, which are beneficial for gut health. In a 2011 study, a group of mice that was fed Lactobacillus rhamnosus, a microbe with probiotic qualities, showed less symptoms of anxiety when put through a battery of tests than a control group that received only broth.4
The connection between brain and gut goes both ways, as we have seen that mild stress can impact microbial balance within the gut, which can make you more susceptible to infectious disease.1 Therapy has been found to help people cope with symptoms of gastrointestinal distress due to the connection between stress response and digestion.5 Dr. Douglas A. Drossman of the University of North Carolina has said that “judicious use of antidepressants can ameliorate psychiatric stressors that exacerbate moderate to severe irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.”6
Even though there is much to learn about the gut-brain axis, it seems clear that exploring digestive habits and health are an important consideration for a holistic approach to healing.
Sarah Tronco, LCSW, provides online counseling in New Jersey and works to develop a strong therapeutic relationship with her clients, which helps to create a secure place where individuals can achieve meaningful change.
Sarah Tronco, LCSW, now also provides online counseling in Pennsylvania, contact her to learn more.