Ever wonder what's going on between the gut and the brain? Well, new research has shed some light on how communication works between these two regions of the body.
Have you ever experienced butterflies in your stomach when nervous? Have you ever binged on chocolate when depressed? Gut feelings have been ignored as scientific facts, but a growing body of research suggests that what we feel in the gut can have a direct bearing on mental health and physical wellbeing. It might sound like pseudoscience, but a new study published in the Journal of Physiology sheds some light on the intricate workings of the gut-brain axis—or the communication system between these two parts of the body.
Science is taking the gut-brain cascade more seriously. It was previously believed that the numerous nerves in the gut were only involved in simple functions such as digestion, but a new study has shown how they affect the stomach and intestines to have an impact on health by communicating with the brain. The findings are shedding new light on how disorders of the gut could be improved through therapy that targets this gut-brain axis.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Our gut and our brain are connected in more ways than we realize.
Our gut is sometimes referred to as the second brain because it is so closely linked to our cognitive function. The gut and the brain talk to each other through the central nervous system (CNS), which causes people with mental health disorders like anxiety to experience physical symptoms like nausea and diarrhea.
When you eat a cupcake, you're not only satisfying your taste buds and your hunger but also connecting with your feelings of joy and satisfaction. This is because food can affect our mood by changing the way our brain works.
The gut-brain connection is a two-way street, meaning that what happens in your mind can alter functions in the gut, and vice versa.
Simply put, if you're depressed or anxious, you may be more prone to experiencing bowel disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). And if you have IBS or another digestive disorder, you may be more vulnerable to mood problems like depression and anxiety.
A Closer Look at the Study
The recent study, published in the American Journal of Physiology, reveals a breakthrough discovery regarding how the specialized cells within the gut wall communicate with sensory nerve endings.
Researchers found that these cells, known as enterochromaffin (EC) cells, release serotonin—a chemical messenger that’s believed to act as a mood stabilizer—when stimulated by food, which then interacts with the nerves to communicate with the brain.
“Based on previous work from our lab, we suspected that sensory nerve endings in the gut wall that communicate with the brain do not make direct contact (synapses) with EC cells,” says Spencer. But while the findings were not a surprise, they weren’t consistent with previous studies that had extrapolated findings based on organ culture dishes.
It is important for scientists to be able to determine whether interactions between certain substances in the gut and those in living organisms are direct or indirect. “A lot of people have tried to understand the interaction between neurons and EC cells in rodent models, but they came up short because they didn’t have enough resolution to see things at higher magnification in living animals, whereas we did this experiment in zebrafish larvae because they are transparent and small enough for us to use live.
What This Means For You
Diet and lifestyle have long been known to play an important role in physical health. However, the role of diet in psychological health is only now becoming clearer. The connection between the gut and the brain has been established, but how exactly it works is still being explored.
Although there's not yet enough evidence to recommend any particular types of food for maintaining mental health, a balanced diet that provides all the necessary nutrients remains the best way to stay healthy.
Mental health is complex and not necessarily solved the same way for all people. If you suffer from mental health issues, your first step is to seek advice from your doctor.
However, it can be useful to keep up to date with studies into how the gut and brain communicate, and it's likely that this will remain a key area of research as doctors strive to identify how best to maintain a healthy mind and well-being.