Ever felt those stomach flutters when you get nervous, find you lose your appetite when excited or find your digestive system plays up when you’re down? If you answered yes, you have witnessed the wonderful communication that occurs 24/7 between our brains and our gut.
Responsible for everything from hormone creation, digestion of foods, absorption of nutrients, creation of vitamins, bowel movements, immune system and libido, our GUT aka the gastrointestinal tract is one of the most important organs in the body, and it deserves some TLC.
Our second brain
There is a reason that they call our gut the ‘second brain’. Our GI tracts are lined with over 100 million nerve cells which come together to form our ENS, the enteric nervous system. This network of millions of neurons, send and receive messages, from our brain to our guts, and vice versa, via our internal highway known as the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve, the longest of our twelve cranial nerves, runs from our brains to the top of our stomachs. The bacteria that sits in our guts directly affect the function of the cells that sit along the vagus nerve.
Thus if our guts are unhappy, they have a direct access line to our brains, allowing them to report into the brain and tell them about their unhappy state. And it goes both ways.
The gut creates neurotransmitters that are critical for the nervous system
Over 90% of Serotonin (the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter that contributes to not only mood but also appetite, sleep, memory and libido) is created in our GI tract. Therefore, when we have a compromised digestive system our guts are not as efficient at creating serotonin.
Low levels of serotonin can impact our mood, making us feel low and in the long-term potentially anxious and even depressed.
The GI tract and its friendly bacteria are also responsible for the crucial neurotransmitters norepinephrine, glutamate, dopamine and GABA. GABA known as the ‘chill out’ neurotransmitter, is recognised for its ability to reduce neural excitation, induce sleep and help lower anxiety whereas Glutamate is involved in cognition, learning and memory.
Therefore, when our gut bacteria is imbalanced, our production of these crucial neurotransmitters might be affected which may influence our mood, anxiety, energy, sleeping patterns, memory, concentration and more.
Healthy gut, healthy digestion = brain power
Having a healthy gut microbiome is key for optimised digestion and absorption of nutrients. When our gut bacteria is fortified with probiotics and not overburdened with bad bacteria and yeasts, we are better equipped with mini bacterial soldiers that can help digest fibre, fat, protein carbohydrates and sugars into energy and nutrients that the body can more readily absorb and use.
If our gut bacteria and digestion are out of whack, then we won’t be as effectively breaking down foods that we digest. We need a fine balance of nutrients for our bodies and brains to function efficiently. In particular, our brains need vitamin E, omega 3 fatty acids and flavonoids to thrive. If we do not effectively break these down and absorb them in our guts, we are missing out on crucial brain power nutrients.
Additionally, if we are not digesting foods effectively, we are not able to extract and utilise the “energy” that these foods give us. Without this energy, our bodily systems won’t function as effectively, and in particular, our brains.
Inflamed gut, inflamed brain
Leaky gut is a condition where the protective junctions in your intestinal lining become compromised due to exposure and in response to factors including pathogenic bacteria, stress, certain medications, environmental toxins, over consumption of processed foods and refined sugars and gut irritating foods.
If your intestinal barrier becomes compromised, undigested food can leak into the bloodstream. This can trigger an immune response leading to bodily inflammation. This inflammation can lead to a whole host of issues including allergies, intolerances, eczema and some chronic health conditions.
What is most significant when it comes to this, is the link between gut integrity and the brain barrier. Our brains are insulated by a highly protective portal called the blood brain barrier. Some substances can impact this blood brain barrier, weakening it and consequently allowing various viruses, proteins and bacteria to infiltrate through. Dependent on which substances, when and how much pass through can cause neurological inflammation and impact our mood.