As it turns out, there’s more to being “hangry” than a missed meal. In fact, there’s an armful of research that points to a very real mind-gut connection, which links our brains to trillions of bacteria in our guts.
A web search of “mind-gut connection” reveals a plethora of books on Amazon, topical articles – both academic and amateur – and news stories. It’s a lot to shift through, especially if you’re just stumbling upon this connection, and references to your gut as a “second brain” can be a bit curious.
So, let’s take a brief look at the mind-gut connection and find what it means for us.
Get Reacquainted With Your Gut
Your gut, or, more formally, your gastrointestinal tract, is a series of organs joined in a long, twisting tube. It includes your mouth, esophagus, stomach, and small and large intestines. The latter of these includes your colon and rectum.
Your GI tract is filled with roughly 100-trillion bacteria, also called “gut flora.” (That’s almost 10 times as many cells as there are in the human body.) This flora helps break down foods and liquids. Nutrients are extracted to give your body energy, allow it to grow and repair cells.
Bacteria are a big part of a gut’s health. Like you, your gut flora need a good diet, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and fermented edibles, including your favorite kombucha or kimchi. Sugar-rich food and drinks – with or without artificial sweeteners – and unhealthy fats tend to be bad for the bacteria.
An Information Superhighway
A feeling of being “full” after a meal should be familiar to most of us. That feeling is a signal that originates in the cells of your stomach and small intestine, which release hormones to tell your brain when you are full or hungry, or to create digestive juices. On top of that, nerves connect your gut and brain and do a handful of things, such as “making your mouth water” when you see or smell food.
The mind-gut connection isn’t new. Back in 2012, the American Psychological Association released a detailed story on it, and its author points out that recent interest in the connection is supported by a “flurry” of research that appeared around 2010.
In rodents, scientists found changes in an animal’s gut can affect neural development. By adjusting the ratio of helpful and disease-causing gut bacteria, they were able to alter the animal’s brain chemistry. In particular, they were able to make a subject more bold or anxious.
Likewise, they found even a little bit of stress can alter the microbial balance of an animal’s gut. Among a handful of outcomes, this could make a body more vulnerable to infectious diseases.
Your Gut and You
In human beings, gut flora produce neurochemicals with a variety of uses. A brain uses these chemicals to regulate a number of processes, including learning, memory and mood. In fact, gut bacteria are responsible for providing an overwhelming 95 percent of a body’s serotonin, also known as the “happy chemical.”
Yet, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the mind-gut connection in humans. According to one source, taking a probiotic – which contains helpful bacteria – could reduce anxiety. It gets a bit complicated, but the gist is that a particular type of probiotic, Lactobacillus (L.) rhamnosus, has the most promise of lowering anxiety.
A study of animal and human subjects found that when given Lactobacillus (L.) rhamnosus, it “helped rodents exposed to stressful conditions or ones that had intestinal inflammation,” the author writes.
While researchers weren’t able to find conclusive evidence of a similar outcome in humans, the author writes, a lack of good gut flora has been associated with irritable bowel syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
Go with your gut. If you’re curious if your diet is having a negative effect on you, now’s a good time to plan a visit with a gastroenterologist.
At Premier Medical Group’s Gastroenterology Division, we’ll help you address your concerns and design a plan to lead you to a healthy gut and your best life. Schedule an appointment today.