Our bodies have many connections—hand/eye coordination; ear, nose and throat; the ankle bone and the leg bone—but did you know that the mind and the gut have a direct correlation?

Have you ever felt it in your gut?

If you’ve ever had a “gut-wrenching experience” or felt “butterflies” in your tummy, than you’ve experienced this yourself. Functional Medicine experts, like Amy Myers, consider the gut “the second brain.” About 90 percent of our serotonin, which regulates mood, is actually made in the gut. If we’re feeling anxious or depressed, we may have a deficiency of serotonin, which travels directly from the gut to the brain.

The saying “go with your gut” comes with merit. If you are having trouble making decisions or having symptoms that may seem more mental than physical, they may not just be a part of your personality. They may in fact have to do with your diet and your gastrointestinal tract. As Harvard Health explains, the gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation — all of these feelings (and others) may trigger symptoms in the gut.

And vice versa, if our guts aren’t producing enough serotonin, what is the root cause?

Functional Medicine providers believe it can be the result of an infection like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or diet factors such as too much caffeine, dairy or gluten. Processed foods containing those items can be inflammatory to the gut and therefore inflammatory to our brains.

“The gut is a much more complicated system than most people realize. People think it is this machine that processes, transports and absorbs foods. In reality it is an extensive sensory system, signaling system and immune system,” says Emeran Mayer, director of the UCLA Oppenheimer Family Center for Neurobiology of Stress and the co-director of the CURE: Digestive Diseases Research Center.

Our gut has between 50 and 100 million nerve cells communicating to our body. To make the connection, there are thousands of microscopic organisms that link our minds and guts, even determining our stress levels, when we get sick and our recovery time.  These microbes have a direct affect on the brain and emotional behaviors. They influence the production of serotonin, which plays a role in appetite regulation, food intake, well-being and sleep.

Stress and Gut Health

Given the Mind Gut connection, it’s easy to understand more about why we feel nauseated before giving a presentation or why we might feel intestinal pain when we’re stressed. Stress or other conditions like depression can affect the movement and contractions of the GI tract, making inflammation worse.

In addition, research suggests that some people with functional GI disorders perceive pain more acutely than other people do because their brains do not properly regulate pain signals from the GI tract. Stress can make the existing pain seem even worse.

What does this mean for you?

Maintaining a healthy gut is key for brain health. And your physical symptoms related to to GI disorders may be very closely linked to behavioral and emotional symptoms. If you have been dealing with irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, or bloating and you have not been feeling like your normal self, you aren’t going mad. Your gut is actually triggering big emotional shifts. You may even feel increased levels of depression or anxiety.

With 30-40 percent of the population experiencing functional bowel problems, it’s important to know what to look for. Harvard Health recognizes the following symptoms surrounding digestive discomforts and brain health:

Physical symptoms

  • Stiff or tense muscles, especially in the neck and shoulders
  • Headaches
  • Sleep problems
  • Shakiness or tremors
  • Recent loss of interest in sex
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Restlessness

Behavioral symptoms

  • Procrastination
  • Grinding teeth
  • Difficulty completing work assignments
  • Changes in the amount of alcohol or food you consume
  • Taking up smoking, or smoking more than usual
  • Increased desire to be with or withdraw from others
  • Rumination (frequent talking or brooding about stressful situations)

Emotional symptoms

  • Crying
  • Overwhelming sense of tension or pressure
  • Trouble relaxing
  • Nervousness
  • Quick temper
  • Depression
  • Poor concentration
  • Trouble remembering things
  • Loss of sense of humor
  • Indecisiveness

Treatment Options

There can be several treatment options for the linked psychological and physical symptoms connected to your gut health.

Experts at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine believe the entire nervous system may be connected to the gut, reacting to certain foods that you eat or avoid. For instance, if you’ve felt tired after lunch or “fuzzy” after eating certain foods, the enteric nervous system (ENS) may be doing some work.

Functional medicine suggests an approach of avoiding alcohol and processed foods that harm the gut microbiome, and perhaps trying an elimination diet of the top food intolerances (such as gluten, dairy, and sugar) to see if it affects your symptoms.

For patients seeking relief from IBS and other digestive challenges, we offer a range Functional Medicine services and blood tests to help seek out the root cause of your symptoms. We also offer complimentary medicine services like acupuncture to provide relief and speed up the healing process. For more information on the mind-gut connection and our services, visit us for a complimentary consultation or call, 773.598.4387