Have you ever found yourself saying you have a “gut feeling” about something? Or maybe you’ve experienced “butterflies in your stomach”? These common phrases actually have some basis in science and help showcase the connection between our gut and our brain. Oftentimes, our current healthcare system places our health and organ systems into little organized and separated baskets. In reality, our health and organ systems are so intricately intertwined and must be looked at as a complete picture. I am so excited to talk to you about the “gut-brain connection”, or as it is referred to in the science/research realm, “the gut-brain axis,” because it really is such a neat way that we can tangibly see how our physical and mental health are very much intertwined. So, let’s dive in!
First off, what is the “gut-brain axis”? It is basically an information exchange network between several different organ systems. Those organ systems include the central and enteric nervous systems, endocrine system, and immune system. Most people understand the top-down concept that our brain communicates with the rest of our body and organ systems. The idea that our gut communicates with our brain, from the bottom-up, is more revolutionary for most. However, that’s exactly what the gut-brain axis is— it is ultimately a bidirectional communication system between the gut and the brain.
Since the communication from the gut to our brain is most likely a newer concept for most, we are going to focus in and take a deeper look into what that communication looks like today. The two primary ways our gut communicates with our brain, as well as other body systems, is through the production of neurotransmitters and signals through the vagus nerve. Let’s first talk about the neurotransmitters synthesized in our gut.
For a long time it was believed that our brain made all of our neurotransmitters. Now we know that our gut microbiome plays a major role. Microbes both produce and influence the production of a large percentage of all neurotransmitters in our body. In fact, over 90% of serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters that regulate our emotions, is synthesized in our gut—and this is just one example of many. While there are many neurotransmitters produced directly by microbes, the other way our microbiome influences neurotransmitter production is by producing neurotransmitter precursors. For example, microbes in the gut produce specific short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) by breaking down food. SCFAs are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and are then used as precursors for neurotransmitter production in the brain.
The most common neurotransmitters produced by the microbiome include dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and glutamate. All four of these neurotransmitters play a role in influencing and regulating mood and emotions. Caring for our microbiome and eating foods that fuel the microbes in our gut are two of the most important ways we can influence neurotransmitter production and can lead to regulation of our mood and emotions!
As I mentioned earlier, the vagus nerve is another major player in the gut-brain axis. It is one of our twelve cranial nerves and is a very large nerve that spans from our gut to our brain and allows for rapid communication. The vagus nerve acts as a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls our “rest and digest” functions. Additionally, the vagus nerve allows for the function of our enteric nervous system, also known as the “second brain”, which is embedded in the walls of our gut. The enteric nervous system is responsible primarily for digestion and excretion; however, it is also involved in communicating information to our brains and influencing our mood and emotions.
Stimulating the vagus nerve is one way we can help support the function of both our brain and our gut. By awakening our vagus nerve, we are helping our body enter that “rest and digest” state that allows our body and brain to relax and properly digest our food for better absorption. A few ways you can naturally stimulate your vagus nerve are practicing meditation, deep breathing, cold stimulation (such as taking a cold shower), gargling, and singing.
As you can probably tell just from this brief overview of the gut-brain connection, our mental and physical health, as well as our organ systems, are very much intertwined. We cannot be truly healthy if we just address our physical health and ignore our mental health or vice versa. Here at Radiate Wellness we believe in looking at the whole person and approaching health as an intricate network rather than putting organ systems into separated baskets. If this sounds like the kind of approach to healthcare you have been looking for, we encourage you to reach out and schedule a Strategy Session with us. We would love to come alongside you as you work to take charge of your health.