Many holistic health practitioners and natural medicine doctors talk about the importance of the gut-brain connection, but what do they really mean by it? Is the “gut-brain connection” an ambiguous concept, or is it actually a real thing?
The answer is yes it’s a genuine concept, and I can explain to you how these two systems are in constant communication.
You see, the gut-brain connection isn’t just a figurative expression, because these two vital organ systems are LITERALLY connected by what’s known as the VAGUS (vay-guhs) nerve.
The first phase of digestion starts in the brain during what’s known as the cephalic phase of digestion. In this initial phase, the sight, sound, smell and thought of food alone triggers the brain to send signals down you central nervous system via the—you guessed it—vagus nerve!
How does this happen on a mechanical level?
The hypothalamus, a major gland in your brain, sends nerve impulses through the parasympathetic vagus nerve; these impulses are then able to innervate the gastrointestinal tract, thereby allowing your digestion muscles to contract rhythmically (“peristalsis“) and gastric juices to be secreted.
Basically, it’s like flipping an electrical switch on in your brain that sends electrical pulses straight to your gut.
And this gut-brain relationship isn’t just mechanical, because it’s also chemical. Chemical messengers like hormones, neurotransmitters, and cytokines are constantly flowing from brain to gut.
But keep in mind that the vagus nerve isn’t just a one-way transport.
The vagus nerve is a major highway that travels bidirectionally—meaning that the brain sends signals to the gut, and vice versa. It’s literally a two-way street, and signals from these two organ systems are constantly traveling back and fourth.
This is why when your gut is in distress it can often appear in your mood, pain perception and behavior. As a practitioner, it’s no surprise to me that clients suffering from a wide range of gut problems complain about the awful headaches, fatigue, anxiety, and debilitating brain fog they’re experiencing. Oftentimes, when one system is down, so is the other (I like to think of the gut and brain like siamese twins). 😀
Get this: even serotonin plays a role in secretion and peristalsis (gut contractions). Many people are surprised to find that almost all serotonin found in the body is actually manufactured in the gut’s enteric cells. When excited, serotonin is secreted and the action of peristalsis begins!
So, why does this matter tremendously for those who have more severe mood issues (like depression, anxiety, & chronic fatigue)?
It matters because the use of SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), also known as anti-depressants, can affect gastric motility functiona. This is why those on anti-depressants might report diarrhea followed by constipation as desensitization of the serotonin receptors happens over time.
When it comes to balancing one’s mood, the connection between gut and brain should simultaneously be considered in the healing process. More often than not, the gut tends to be the missing puzzle piece that’s overlooked when addressing mood disturbances and energy levels. Yet, in my experience i’ve found that a customized nutrition plan along with some targeted gut healing protocols can not only be mood-boosting, but also transformative for a client.
So, the moral of the story is: when in doubt, trust your gut (and nurture it too!) 😉