We’ve all experienced a “gut feeling” at one time or another in our lives, and made a decision, usually the right one, based entirely upon it. As it turns out, that “feeling” we experience is actually very real and not imagined. It’s your gut-brain axis signaling you that something is up, and that you better take care of it.
What is The Gut-Brain Axis?
The gut-brain axis is the connection between your central nervous system (CNS) and your enteric nervous system (ENS). It is a two way, i.e., bidirectional, link. The circuitry connects pathways directly or indirectly between cognitive and emotional areas in the brain with peripheral gastrointestinal functions of the digestive system and vice-versa.
We are all familiar with the CNS, but the ENS is more of a mystery that medicine has only recently begun to grasp the importance of. The ENS is 100 million nerve cells lining two thin layers that run the length of your gastrointestinal tract from top to bottom – the esophagus to rectum. It’s been dubbed your “little brain”, not because it is capable of thinking, but in taking a responsive action by communicating with the larger brain. The biggest nerve connecting your gut and brain is the vagus nerve, which transmits bidirectional signals capable of stimulating a “gut feeling” in anyone.
The link between your gut and brain has become a popular topic in medical journals and health magazines for a good reason. What happens and why when your CNS and ENS connect has been the source of a growing body of research. Every indication is that gut health can influence your brain, i.e., that it can affect your behavior, the way you think, and even your mood. In light of the gut-brain axis, that old saying, “You are what you eat,” takes on a whole new meaning, with added significance on the importance of a healthy diet.
How Diet Affects the Gut-Brain Axis
Many foods, especially in the U.S., are ultra-processed and loaded with chemical additives to lower production costs of the manufacturer. Ultra-processed foods contain extracts from foods – the sugar and starch, hydrogenated fats, high fructose corn syrup – or food coloring and flavor enhancers – all to simulate the experience of real whole food. Ultra-processed foods are manufactured, not grown, and highly inflammatory to the digestive system. The additives and artificial ingredients in them are intended to make them taste good, at a cheap price to the consumer and an even cheaper production cost for the manufacturer. The consequence has been a cause for concern and as poor gut health has increased so has the risk of diseases.
The Connection Between Food and Mood
The gut-brain axis offers a greater understanding of not just the interaction of diet and disease, but its connection to depression and anxiety. Consider that 90% of all serotonin receptors are located in the gut and the connection between brain and gut, inflammation and disease, and depression and anxiety becomes even more pronounced. It’s no wonder that the most common side effects from taking prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), common antidepressants, are gastrointestinal—nausea and diarrhea.
What does this mean? For years the consensus thought by doctors and researchers was that people suffering from inflammatory gastrointestinal issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, diarrhea, bloating sensations, or upset stomach was contributing factor to the onset of depression and anxiety. But increasing research on the gut-brain axis is showing it’s the other way around. Poor gut health is triggering or influencing mood changes. People with IBS and other gastrointestinal problems have a higher-than-normal likelihood to develop depression and anxiety because of poor gut health.
Considered from another perspective: on the gut-brain axis, consuming inflammatory foods and not taking care of your digestive wellness can literally drive you insane!
Why the Gut-Brain Axis is Important
The gut-brain axis is connected through millions of nerves. More than digest food, the gut and its microbes also signal reactions that can affect brain health. All of this suggests that by improving your diet, by consuming non-processed whole foods, it can alter the types of bacteria in your gut. Eating a balanced diet and taking care of your overall digestive wellness can offer a protective measure against depression. By improving your gut health, the result may improve your brain health, and make you a much happier person!