What is the Gut-Brain Axis?

gut-brain axis

You may be surprised to learn the brain’s role in the health of your gut microbiome. The gut-brain axis is a strong connection; your emotions or mental health can affect your gastrointestinal tract and vice versa. In fact, it’s extremely common for people struggling with a GI condition to also struggle with anxiety or other mental health disorders. 

At Wake Endoscopy Center, our gastroenterologists help patients with many digestive issues. While treatment can definitely involve procedures and medication, the strength of the gut-brain axis should not be underestimated. Sometimes treating the anxiety or stress alone can result in alleviating digestive pain. Learn more about how your gut and brain are connected here. 

Explaining the Gut-Brain Axis

Your gut sends many communication signals to your brain. So much so that the phrases “gut feeling” and “butterflies in your stomach” are commonly used in everyday vocabulary. The gut-brain axis is a connection between the brain in your skull and the “brain in your gut.” The “brain in your gut” is referred to as the enteric nervous system (ENS). It is over a million nerve cells that line the gastrointestinal tract. The director of Nerogastroenterology at John Hopkins Center describes the roles of the ENS as controlling digestion and being able to communicate back and forth with our brain or central nervous system (CNS). 

The gut-brain axis is relevant to gastroenterology because it contributes to symptoms of commonly seen GI issues. Prior research suggests that anxiety or other mental health-related conditions can trigger GI disorders. However, recent studies reveal that a GI condition can also worsen mental health issues. Inflammation or a negative reaction within the gut microbiome can signal to cause a negative mental feeling, such as stress, anxiety, etc. 

Gut-Brain Axis and Anxiety

The connection between GI conditions and mental health explains how the gut-brain axis links to digestive issues. Of the functional GI disorders with strong gut-brain connections, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) ranks high. IBS is a functional disorder of the large intestine (colon). Common symptoms of this disorder include abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. 

It is found that 60% of patients with IBS also have one or more psychiatric disorders, anxiety being the most common. While the two are connected, it is unclear whether one causes the other. As mentioned earlier, there are studies to support both theories. When your mind starts to feel anxious, your body releases stress-related chemicals into your gut. These chemicals can worsen existing abdominal pain or gastrointestinal symptoms.

On the other hand, a weak or imbalanced gut can stimulate a lack of healthy hormones or chemicals being released to the brain. Serotonin levels are linked to the gut microbiome. Therefore, an unhealthy gut can trigger negative mental health feelings.  

Improve Your Gut and Mental Health

The gut-brain axis can also play a role in improving your gut and mental health. Many lifestyle changes can improve your overall gut health, including physical activity, a nutrient-dense diet, and getting enough sleep. Similarly, the same methods can be used to promote a positive, healthy mind. You may find that solely focusing on improving gut health will simultaneously improve your mental health or vice versa.

Consult a Gastroenterologist

Understanding the gut-brain axis can steer you in the right direction regarding a treatment plan. Whether treating the GI condition head-on or prioritizing mental health, they both positively impact your well-being. If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of anxiety simultaneously with abdominal pain, consult a gastroenterologist for a solution. Contact us at Wake Endoscopy Center to request an appointment.