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Gut-Brain Health Connection

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illustration of a humans gut surrounded by food

Have you ever had a stomachache when you’re dealing with a negative situation? Or had "butterflies” in your stomach when you’re nervous? Those are signs that your brain and gut are communicating with each other. That’s what many refer to as the gut-brain connection.

Connections and Messages

Yes, your brain and gut are connected and they’re sensitive to what each other is doing. The messages they send each other can affect your mood, anxiety, depression, bowel habits and how fast your stomach empties. Andrew Gottesman, MD, Cooper Clinic Gastroenterologist, says, “to some extent the saying 'you are what you eat’ is true!” He shares how the brain and gut are connected by the enteric (intestinal) nervous system and the vagus nerve, a nerve that sends out messages from the brain for specific commands like digestion, heart rate and the body’s inflammation response. 

“The brain and gut are also connected chemically, by neurotransmitters,” says Dr. Gottesman. Neurotransmitters are produced by the cells in the intestinal wall and from bacteria living in the intestines. These neurotransmitters—such as serotonin—play a significant role in many bodily functions including sleep, gut digestion and mood. They are carried by the bloodstream to the brain and the enteric nervous system, helping regulate both physical and mental processes.

Microbiota balance in the gut is important in maintaining overall health. When the microbiota are not in balance, disease and illness are more likely. It may take several years following birth to establish a stable microbiome. Once established, the microbiome tends to be stable.

But when you introduce things that can destroy the healthy, normal microbiome, such as taking antibiotics for extended periods of time to treat infections or eating excess amounts of unhealthy foods, the gut gets out of balance and can lead to sickness and even disease.

Gut Balance

“When the gut is out of balance the body produces many different chemicals,” Dr. Gottesman explains. “Many are pro-inflammatory; these chemicals can induce inflammation. Chronic inflammation can lead to diseases such as psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases, so there’s a big connection between the gut and what’s going on with the rest of your body.”

Certain autoimmune diseases can be activated due to the imbalance in the microbiome such as:

  • Psoriasis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Type 1 diabetes

Many foods can affect your gut health in good and bad ways so it’s important to know which foods can also affect your brain and your overall health.

Probiotics & Prebiotics

To help bring balance to the gut, probiotics are one of the most recommended supplements. Probiotics are living bacteria consumed to help the body stay healthy, aid digestion and suppress disease causing microorganisms. In combination with probiotics, it’s important to incorporate prebiotics into your diet. Prebiotics, which are essentially fiber, are the food source for probiotics. Dr. Gottesman emphasizes the importance of having prebiotics and probiotics combined since they “interact with each other to get the proper reaction for your gut’s health.”

Probiotics (the gut bacteria)

  • Fermented foods such as yogurt, miso (fermented soybeans paste), kimchi and kefir

Prebiotics (foods for the microbiome)

  • Pickled vegetables
  • Fiber: Found in blackberries, pears with peel, green peas, lentils and whole grain pasta and breads
  • Balsamic vinegar

Foods to Limit or Avoid

Many foods can be harmful to your gut and cause you to have an imbalance in your gut’s microbiome. The following are some examples of foods you should try to limit or avoid. 

  • High protein diets are not recommended 
  • Excess sugar, especially added sugars, causes inflammation in the body and can disrupt the gut biome.

Incorporating healthy eating habits and maintaining a stable and healthy microbiome can be the first step in reducing inflammation and improving your mood. An article from Northwestern Medicine shares how “your gut has feelings.” If your gut microbiome is negatively altered, it can affect your mood and mentation. And people with bowel disorders, such as IBS, are more likely to suffer from mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. Though the science showing this connection is fairly new, Dr. Gottesman says, “it’s clear the bacteria that inhibit your gut and the chemicals they make directly affect your health and how you perceive the world.”

If you have questions about your nutritional health, schedule a nutrition consultation with a Cooper Clinic registered dietitian nutritionist. Call 972.560.2655 or visit cooperclinicnutrition.com.

To learn more about your gut health and your overall health, make an appointment with Cooper Clinic by visiting cooper-clinic.com or call 866.906.2667.