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How Your Mental Health Affects Your GI Tract

We may not often think about how the brain-gut connection affects our daily lives, but our minds and digestive systems are closely intertwined. In fact, the mind-gut connection may play an even greater role in our health and emotional well-being than scientists currently understand. Gaining better understanding of this link may also provide insight into the prevalence of digestive diseases in modern life.

Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are estimated to affect nearly two-thirds of Americans on a weekly basis. These symptoms may include abdominal pain, excess gas, bowel incontinence, constipation, diarrhea, disrupted swallowing, heartburn and nausea. 

Many factors may be responsible for GI symptoms, including taking certain medications, traveling or other disruptions in your usual routine and not getting enough exercise. But another, often overlooked factor in GI distress is your mental health. But why?

The  connection between mental and physical health

Medical understanding of the mind-gut connection is evolving, but one thing is becoming clear: Your digestive system can have a direct impact on your mood and mental health, and vice-versa. In fact, the digestive system — the 100 million nerve cells that line your GI tract from your esophagus all the way down to your rectum — comprises a semi-autonomous nervous system of its own. 

That nervous system, called the enteric nervous system, functions under the auspices of the central nervous system and its control panel, your brain and spine. But the enteric nervous system can operate surprisingly well by itself, even with minimal input from your brain and spinal cord. This extensive, self-reliant neural network is sometimes even described by scientists as a “little brain” or “second brain.” 

The job of the enteric nervous system is to digest food, but it does more than that. It processes information.

If you think about it, you’ve likely experienced plenty of moments where your “second brain” was hard at work. Maybe you’ve gotten the sensation of “butterflies” in your stomach right before a big test or a presentation. Or maybe your intuition warned you against the dangers of a particular situation by way of a sinking sensation in the pit of your gut — aka, a “gut feeling.” You may even use adages like “trust your gut” to pump yourself up under ambiguous circumstances that call for tough decisions. These common experiences and the adages that describe them all point to a mind-gut connection, reflecting the unexpected intelligence that lies within our GI tract. 

What we know about the mind/gut connection

The key connective mechanism between the mind and gut is the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in our bodies and a major component of our nervous system. Its job is to regulate our body’s response to stress, among critical bodily functions like our digestion. 

Since the 1980s, scientists have found that certain medical conditions can be treated by stimulating the vagus nerve directly. These include psychiatric disorders like treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. There’s evidence that stimulating vagal fibers in the gut triggers certain brain systems — setting off the activity of neurotransmitters that influence mood.

There’s also some indication that gut bacteria may have a beneficial effect on mood, partly because of its interaction with the vagus nerve.

Problems in your gut that might be caused by anxiety 

Your gut can influence your mood. And vice versa. Your mood may also influence your gut. Stress and anxiety, in particular, have been shown to manifest in very real symptoms of gastric upset. Indigestion, stomach cramps, diarrhea, constipation, and loss of appetite are just some of the digestive disturbances that may arise from prolonged emotional distress. 

It all goes back to the brain-gut connection. Stress causes the release of hormones into the digestive tract that can inhibit gut motility. In other words, stress inhibits our stomach and intestines from properly processing food and moving waste through the body. This digestive disruption can also throw off our gut flora, the delicate microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts and help with digestion, which can then cause further GI problems. 

In the case of acute digestive disturbances, it might be a good idea to visit an urgent care provider. For more chronic and long-term issues, your primary care doctor may recommend that you make an appointment with a gastroenterologist. 

Ways to improve the mind/gut connection 

There are additional measures you can take to improve your mind-gut connection, and thus, your GI health. 

  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a technique that improves mood by redirecting awareness onto the present moment.  It can help you strengthen the mind-gut connection and reinforce the health of its corresponding parts by reducing stress. 
  • Try therapy. Like mindfulness, engaging in some type of therapy, most classically cognitive behavioral therapy, can also reduce stress for a better mind/body connection. There are many different types of therapy to choose from, which you can read about here.  
  • Stay hydrated. Water is so important for our body’s ability to function that the body has developed several mechanisms to ensure we’re getting enough of it. For example, there’s a hormone that tells you when you’re thirsty. Quenching your thirst by drinking water will calm down that hormone’s signals to your brain, beginning in your gut. 

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The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.