The Gut-Brain: What Is It, And How Does It Impact Mental Health?
Updated: Aug 23
By Daneille Callow
Over the past few years, you may have heard about the importance of gut health. I have seen many advertisements recently promoting different ways to heal the gut. We are learning more about what scientists call the “gut brain” and its connection to our mental health.
Our bodies send millions of signals through various systems to keep us alive and functioning well. The research shows that our bodies and brains constantly talk to each other. If we want to find healing, looking at more than just our thoughts and emotions is important. We must also look within ourselves and our physical bodies to understand what is happening.
I like to think of learning about our mind-body connection, like the process of building a house.
When building a house, you start with the structure of the home- the foundation, framing, drywall, electrical, and roof. Once you have the structure, you can begin filling the house with furniture and decor, a personalization of what makes that house unique to you. Our existence is much like this house. The structure of the home symbolizes our bodies. It is the physical place that we inhabit throughout our lives. We can think of the furniture and decor as our thoughts and emotions- the things that make us uniquely who we are. We wouldn’t invest our money in furnishing a house without first understanding the home’s structure, layout, floor plan, etc. If we understand the structure of our house (our bodies), we can work on decorating it (addressing our thoughts and emotions.)
What is the gut-brain?
The gut-brain axis is the communication system between our gastrointestinal (GI) tract and brain. They communicate with each other in various ways, including through the vagus nerve by way of neurotransmitters. Some neurotransmitters you may have heard of include serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are stored in the gut and help regulate our moods, sleep cycles, attention, and reward system. When these chemicals are dysregulated, they can cause a wide range of issues.
The “gut microbiome” consists of trillions of microorganisms that live in our gut and aid our physical and mental health. Studies show that when certain aspects of our gut flora are reduced, it can lead to symptoms of depression. Although scientists have known for years that our minds and bodies are deeply connected, it was only recently that we have begun to understand the extent to which our bodies also talk to our brains. Since this system works bilaterally, we can see that our gut health and our mental health are deeply interwoven with one another.
The Impact on Mental Health
Research shows that people with GI disorders such as IBS also have a 60% chance of having a psychological disorder. Studies also show that there is a correlation between anxiety symptoms and IBS. People experiencing anxiety can be more sensitive to gut issues than those who do not struggle with anxiety. Gut problems and anxiety can often be a vicious cycle.
Perpetuating this cycle is the use of antidepressants, which often worsen GI issues. Understanding the signals our body sends to our brains helps us understand the complexity of our mental and physical health. Most of us think of the mind-body connection as a top-down system where our brains send signals to our bodies, and our bodies react to those signals, which is true. However, once we learn that our bodies often send signals to our brains, we begin to understand how effective somatic therapies are because they make us pay close attention to our physical bodies.
How therapy can help
One of the beautiful pieces of mental health therapy is that it requires us to build awareness about ourselves. I had a professor in my Master’s program say that “We are not just brains on a stick.” This means that in counseling, we are not just working with our thoughts and feelings but learning and building awareness about different parts of ourselves.
Our brain-gut connection shows us the importance of listening to what our minds and bodies need and asks us to examine ourselves holistically. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and somatic therapies that focus on the mind-body connection effectively treat gut-brain-related disorders. For example, thought restructuring can be helpful by teaching us strategies to cope with stress and anxiety related to our health. Somatic therapies can also help us learn how to stay relaxed and regulate ourselves when experiencing GI discomfort.
When our gut health is out of balance, it can create a whole host of issues.
Physical and emotional problems can become overwhelming, and we may not know what to do about them. Speaking with a doctor or nutritionist can help address some of the physical components of gut health. Speaking with a mental health therapist can help build awareness around how your gut symptoms may be interconnected with anxiety and depression.
As we strive towards wellness, I hope we are aware and amazed by the complexities of our minds and bodies. The signals that our gut and brain send to one another are there to keep our bodies going about our day-to-day lives. Our bodies are doing the best they can for us. Let’s thank them for all they do.
Aliouche, H. (2022, July 8). Digestive disorders and mental health. News Medical Life Sciences. https://www.news-medical.net/health/Digestive-Disorders-and-Mental-Health.aspx#:~:text=Appr oximately%2060%25%20of%20those%20who,are%20the%20most%20common%20comorbiditi es.
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