I’m sure that you’re probably familiar with that nervous feeling of “butterflies in the stomach”. Perhaps you’ve experienced a “gut-wrenching” experience when learning of some bad news. Or that flurry in the pit of your stomach when you’re excited…or in love.  But have you ever considered what this means, and what actually is going on inside your body? Well it turns out that our brain and our digestive system are very closely linked.  So closely in fact, that some experts say it should be viewed as one system. Whilst we think of our brain as the organ in charge of our mental health, it has emerged that actually our gut has a very important role to play in this too.

When you’re stressed your body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode in anticipation of a perceived threat. The process of digestion will slow or even stop, so that the body can divert its energy to where it is deemed more important (the muscles and the brain). This is what you may experience before a big presentation or interview- manifesting as an unsettled stomach, abdominal pain and other digestive symptoms including diarrhoea.

But it’s even more complicated than that. The part of the nervous system that regulates our digestion is called the enteric nervous system, often referred to by scientists as “the second brain”. There are more neurones in the gut than anywhere else in the body except the brain, and they rely on the same signaling chemicals. In fact, 95% of the “feel-good” hormone serotonin which is largely responsible for our mood (levels of serotonin are often low in depressed individuals) is actually produced in the gut.

The gut is extremely sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, stress, sadness and excitement can all trigger digestive symptoms. It has been found that psychotherapies including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), relaxation therapy and hypnosis can all provide some relief to patients suffering with digestive problems. A review of 13 studies showed that patients with digestive issues who tried psychological approaches had greater improvement in their symptoms to those who received conventional medical treatment.


The role of our gut bacteria and probiotics

The gut contains over 1kg of bacteria (there are 10 x more bacteria than total cells in the body, around 100 trillion!), and this plays a very important role in the health of our digestive system.  Research has shown that the composition of these bacteria can affect not just our physical health, but can also have a significant impact on our brain function and mental health too.

Probiotics are live “friendly” bacteria that we can take to boost our levels of gut bacteria, and help maintain a healthy digestive system. Over the last few years there have been several studies looking at the potential impact of probiotics on behavior and mental issues. Through this, the concept of a “psychobiotic” has emerged; defined as “a live organism that, when ingested in adequate amounts, produces a health benefit in patients suffering from psychiatric illness”. This has posed the question, could probiotics have a role in treating depression and other mental health disorders? This continues to be an area of great scientific interest, with more and more evidence emerging to support this claim.

The best way to take a probiotic is in a dietary supplement form. You can also improve the amount of “friendly” bacteria in your gut through diet by:

  • Reducing you sugar intake. Sugar can feed the bad bacteria and upset the balance of “friendly” bacteria in your gut
  • Eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, natto (fermented soy) and lassi (a traditional Indian yoghurt drink)
  • Increasing your intake of prebiotic foods such as onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, leek and banana.

What is becoming clear is that looking after our digestive health could be one of the most important things we do to help keep our minds happy. In fact, it might do us all well to pay a bit more attention to our “gut feeling” in the future…



About the Author:

Naomi Mead is a trained nutritional therapist and specialises in weight management, female health, sports nutrition and digestive disorders. She has been accredited at the renowned Institute of Optimum Nutrition. Food and its therapeutic powers are something Naomi is very passionate about. She also contributes on Nutrition Expert and Food First.



photo credit: Camdiluv ♥ via photopin cc