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The Truth Behind the Gut-Brain Connection

Nov 08, 2019

Have you ever been so nervous that it felt like your stomach was in knots? Or maybe you reached a point where you were so stressed out you had no appetite? These conditions hint at a connection between your stomach and your brain. Researchers have recently delved into this topic to learn more about the gut-brain axis and the apparent link between these two organs.

What Is the Gut-Brain Connection? 

When most people think of neurons, they think of small connections in the brain through which information travels. But did you know the gut contains about 500 million neurons? These connections send information from your gut to your brain and back. The vagus nerve also serves as a bridge between the gut and the brain, sending sensory info and signals from one to the other. 

The connection doesn’t stop with these nerves and neurons, however. There is a colony of microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, and more, that lives in your intestine. This microbiome helps digest food and even produces neurotransmitters, a type of chemical that can increase or inhibit neuronal activity.

With all this interconnectivity, it’s easy to see how you might experience nausea when you’re nervous or get “butterflies in your stomach” when you’re excited. The opposite is also true: the gut is capable of sending signals to the brain. This two-sided relationship means an improper diet can impact your mood and emotions, giving new meaning to feeling “hangry.” 

The Gut Microbiome and Neurotransmitters 

The gut microbiome is responsible for producing a few types of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). Serotonin can bring about feelings of happiness, while GABA can help you feel calm, and they both travel to the brain through your vagus nerve and neurons. In order for your microbiome to create these neurotransmitters, though, it needs to have the proper fuel. 

Fueling Your Gut Microbiome 

The microbiome in your gut is picky, so you have to be careful about what you feed it if you want it to produce the feel-good neurotransmitters. The microbiome feeds on prebiotics, a sort of fuel that comes from fiber. Meanwhile, probiotics contain beneficial bacteria that can join your microbiome and produce more of these happiness-inducing chemicals. 

Foods rich in prebiotics include: 

  • Veggies, such as Jerusalem artichokes and onions
  • Legumes, such as chickpeas and lentils 
  • Fruits, such as bananas and watermelon 
  • Nuts and seeds, such as almonds and flaxseeds 

Foods rich in probiotics include: 

  • Yogurt with live cultures
  • Fermented foods, such as kimchi, kombucha, and unpasteurized pickled vegetables

If you’re looking for more ways to improve your gut health or your mental health, schedule an appointment with your Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group primary care physician. They can provide advice, help you create a diet plan based on your needs, and refer you to a Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group gastroenterologist if you have an underlying condition causing your stomach concerns.

Harvard Health Publishing | The gut-brain connection
Healthline | The Gut-Brain Connection: How it Works and The Role of Nutrition
NIH | 4 Fast Facts about the Gut-Brain Connection
Healthline | Why the Gut Microbiome Is Crucial for Your Health
Medical News Today | Everything you need to know about the vagus nerve
Medical News Today | What prebiotic foods should people eat?
Healthline | Probiotics and Prebiotics: What’s the Difference?
Medium | Hormones and Neurotransmitters: The Differences and Curious Similarities