It took us a long time to recognise the gut-mind connection, but now that we have, we’re finding all kinds of ways they influence each other.
The gut microbiome has been linked to everything from autism to Parkinson’s disease and even Alzheimer’s. But while we are still learning about those major connections, there are also many smaller ways our gut affects every one of us, every day. Here’s what you need to know.
What is your ‘gut brain’?
Now that we know that the gut-mind connection exists, scientists have been studying that connection in increasing detail. What they have found is that there is some connection between the 100 million nerve cells that line the gut and our brain and nervous system.
This is known as the enteric nervous system, or ENS, and while it’s not capable of conscious thought like your actual brain, it’s involved in nearly every process in your body in some way.
Your ‘gut brain’ controls how food and nutrients are processed and distributed. It helps to regulate how and when certain hormones are produced and released and takes care of many other processes that keep our bodies functioning day to day.
Impact on Anxiety
Scientists have known for a long time that anxiety and stress can have an impact on the gut. Often, these things manifest as conditions like IBS or even the ‘tummy ache’ some children experience when they’re nervous about something.
However, we now know that it might work in the opposite direction too.
There is increasing evidence that when your gut microbiome is not healthy and in balance, it can cause or exacerbate conditions like depression and anxiety. In fact, there’s a growing body of research that proves that people who have gut trouble (which could be as many as 30% or 40% of the population) also have mental health problems.
So What is a Healthy Gut?
We know that your gut health can impact your mental health and vice versa. We know that gut health probably has an effect on certain mental health conditions and diseases. But what actually makes a healthy gut?
A healthy gut depends on a variety of factors. First, of course, there’s the physical health of your gut. Your gut or digestive tract is a very long series of muscles and organs that are designed to process food and push it through your body, absorbing nutrients and getting rid of waste as it goes – your gut needs to be physically capable of doing that.
But there’s also a huge community of ‘good bacteria’ that live in the gut. These, along with other microorganisms in the gut are known as the microbiome. These organisms help to break down food as it passes through the gut, and to ensure that we get the nutrients we need from the food we eat.
When your gut microbiome is not in balance, your digestive system will not function properly, which is when you get problems like constipation, gas, bloating and diarrhoea.
How to Support Gut Health
Gut health is part nature, part nurture. Some people naturally have gut health problems, but most of those are treatable – so it’s important to seek medical attention if you need to.
However, many people are damaging their gut through lifestyle choices.
That might mean that they make poor dietary choices, don’t get enough exercise or don’t drink enough water to stay hydrated. Even small changes like increasing fibre and water intake can make a big difference in your gut health.
If you frequently have digestive trouble, it’s important to speak to your doctor and find out what you can do about them. They might recommend fibre supplements or conduct tests to rule out serious gut problems. They might also recommend adding prebiotics and probiotics to your diet, so you can improve your gut microbiome.
Treating the Gut to Improve Mental Health
Now that we know how closely linked the gut and the mind are (even if we don’t understand all the details yet) it’s common to see doctors treating problems in both systems by treating the other.
For instance: gastroenterologists, knowing the link between IBS and anxiety or depression might prescribe anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications to help treat the symptoms of the condition.
Psychologists treating patients with cognitive behavioural therapy might also take gut-related symptoms into account when diagnosing and evaluating patients.
Research is ongoing into the role of the gut in illnesses like multiple sclerosis and neurodegenerative diseases, and at some point, it’s likely that we will see more treatments that focus on or at least take into account the gut.
A Holistic Approach
There is still a lot to learn about just how closely intertwined our gut-mind connection really is, but there’s no denying at this point that it exists. So next time you have tummy trouble, consider what kind of mental health problems you might have too, and seek help for both. Or the next time you are feeling anxious or depressed, pay attention to how your digestive system works.
At some point, it’s likely that we will see more information and treatments that affect the gut and the mind. But for now, we know that a holistic approach is best. After all, a healthy body is a healthy mind, and vice versa.
If you or a loved one are struggling and looking for help, there are many resources available. Head to our Resources page for helplines to call and tools you can use to take care of your mental health.