How your digestive system influences your emotions

You’ve probably heard about the balance of good and bacteria in your digestive tract. But did you know that these microorganisms can have an effect on your moods and mental health? The truth is, we all have the power to turn tummy turmoil around and improve not only our general health but also our emotional health just by taking a look inside our digestive tract. Let me explain.

The world within your digestive tract (or gut as health experts often call it) involves an interconnected relationship between complex microorganisms. These are most easily understood as either ‘good bacteria’ or ‘bad bacteria’.

‘Good bacteria’ complete a multitude of tasks within your body including preventing the growth of harmful bacteria, controlling metabolism, reducing harmful substances such as carcinogens and toxins, gleaning energy, nutrients and fatty acids from the foods you eat, producing hormones and training your immune system. These same good bacteria also communicate with your brain. Yes, you read that right. I said your digestive system sends messages to your brain.

This might sound surprising but the reality is that your gut is deeply connected to your brain. So much so that health experts often refer to the gut as the ‘second brain’. Your body also has two nervous systems: the central nervous system which is composed of your brain and spinal cord and the enteric nervous system which is the intrinsic nervous system of your gastrointestinal tract.

Your two nervous systems are formed at the same time during fetal development, and are created from identical tissues, connected via something called the vagus nerve, which runs from your brain stem right down to your abdomen. This is how your gut bacteria transmit messages to your brain.

Understanding the vagus nerve completely flips the idea that the brain is in charge of the rest of your body. Rather, it reveals that the gut is largely in control of the body.

Just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons within your gut. This includes neurons that produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which is the chemical responsible for happiness. And guess where the greatest concentration of serotonin can be found? Yep, you guessed it in your digestive tract. Not your brain.

The ability of the gut to communicate with your brain and influence your behavior and moods is emerging as a very exciting concept in the scientific health world. There is no doubt that the presence of good bacteria in the gut indeed alters the function of the brain. Scientists have also found links between the bacteria in our gut and conditions like anxiety and depression. Digestive health is therefore paramount to the state of your mind.

However, food alone will not promise a thriving colony of healthy bacteria in your gut. Stress and emotional factors can override even the most perfect diet. Evidence also suggests that our bacteria respond in damaging ways to stress or negative emotions. For example, the hormones secreted when you’re under extreme stress can contribute to the overgrowth of bad bacteria.

Your gut and your emotions are a two way street. They both impact on each other. So addressing the state of your gut health, not just the food you eat, is incredibly important to your mental health.

Want to know more about the gut and brain connection? Download Lee’s new ebook, Heal Your Gut, here.

Image credit: Thinkstock