You're stressed and your gut knows it—immediately. The enteric nervous system is often referred to as our body's second brain. There are hundreds of millions of neurons connecting the brain to the enteric nervous system, the part of the nervous system that is tasked with controlling the gastrointestinal system
The brain-gut connection
The brain has a direct effect on your gut, including your stomach and intestines.
The gut is controlled by its own network of neurons in the lining of the gastrointestinal system, known as the enteric nervous system, but it’s also controlled in part by the central nervous system in the brain and spinal cord.
The digestive system is sensitive to emotion, including anger, anxiety, and sadness. This is why you might feel sick to your stomach when you’re particularly stressed out. Stress, depression, and other psychological factors can send the brain-gut connection out of whack and cause alterations to gut physiology.
These feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut that interfere with digestive functions such as swallowing, the release of enzymes to break down foods, and the categorization of foods as nutrients or waste products. Stress can affect movement and contractions of the gastrointestinal tract, increase inflammation and exacerbate gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). There is also a strong relationship between mental health issues and gastrointestinal symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation, and diarrhea.
And this brain-gut connection is not a one-way street.
Evidence has shown that when someone is dealing with gastrointestinal problems, their gut’s enteric nervous system may send signals to the central nervous system that trigger emotional changes. These findings could explain why a higher-than-average percentage of people with digestive problems develop depression and anxiety.
It’s this connection that has many researchers hopeful that improving gut health and microbiota (bacteria in your digestive tract) through probiotics might one day be an option in treating mental illness. While we know probiotics support a healthy gut and can restore normal microbial balance, more research is required to see if it supports a healthy brain.
Remember to have fun, be grateful and you'll be on your way to living your most optimal life!