Growing up we are always told to trust our "gut instinct", to "listen to your gut" and we even get "butterflies in our tummies" when we are always feeling nervous or anxious about something. This conversation between our Gut and Brain (more than just when we are hungry!) is therefore really obvious!
To understand this communication let me quickly touch on our nervous system. We have what is called an autonomic nervous system which regulates a lot of our bodies processes (breathing, blood pressure, digestion, etc) and consists of our sympathetic, parasympathetic and the enteric nervous systems. A quick way to remember basically what they do is:
Sympathetic - think fight or flight, the classic adrenalin reaction where blood is diverted from digestive track and sent elsewhere so you can 'tackle that saber tooth tiger'
Parasympathetic - its job is to calm everything down, so important for digestion
Enteric - this is the nervous system of the gut
It is the communication between our enteric nervous system and our brain (via the vagus nerve) that we talk about with the gut-brain axis.
This vagus nerve (where vagus means wandering in latin) is amazing as it has both sensory and motor functions and is the longest nerve, going from our brain all the way to our abdomen. I like to think of the vagus nerve as our highway of communication between the gut and the brain. One thing that can hinder this communication is stress, with research showing it actually inhibits these signals.
What is interesting is the fact that about 90 per cent of the signals passing along the vagus nerve come from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. What this suggests is that a large part of our emotions and psychological states are influenced by our gut!
So now we know what the whole gut-brain axis is, and the fact that our gut talks way more to our brain than the other way around, it starts to get clearer why having a good functioning gut is just so darn important! What is also important to note is that 80-90% of our serotonin (our feel good hormone) is actually produced in the gut!
Leaky gut comes into play here - now when I say leaky gut I don't mean that you are actually leaking anywhere, it is where the integrity of your gut lining becomes compromised through elements such as stress, diet, lifestyle, foods, medications, illness, etc and toxins can get absorbed into your blood system leading to further inflammation. A good example of how this inflammation can play a role on mental health is the research around people who suffer from either irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or irritable bowel disorders (IBD) and how they are more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety in comparison to the general population. Some of the numbers are really high, especially in IBS patients such as diagnosed with: depression (IBS: 61%; IBD: 16%), generalised anxiety disorder (IBS: 54%; IBD: 11%), panic disorder (IBS: 61%; IBD: 11%), and agoraphobia (IBS: 25%; IBD: 25%) (3).
And don't forget your microbiome! We are meant to have a beautiful diversity of gut bacteria but most of us are really out of whack. I utilise microbiome stool testing to see what is actually going on for you from both a beneficial to non-beneficial (good guys versus bad guys) point of view. When we know what needs to be increased and what has just gone to town in your gut it lets us be more specific with our treatment strategies. There is also a lot of research around specific strains of bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium longum that have shown to support people suffering from anxiety and depression.
I love what our poo can tell us!! Amazing, right??!!
Now let me summarise what all this means because I may have got carried away:
As you can see our gut is MORE THAN ABOUT POO - you can be going to the toilet just fine everyday but if you are struggling with anxiety or depression it is a sign that your gut can do with a little loving.
If you feel your gut health is having an impact on your mental health, or the other way round, then please reach out for a more detailed discussion from a qualified health professional such as myself.