The Brain-Gut Connection and Why Integrated Treatment is Essential

What is the brain-gut connection?: 

Perhaps the idea of a “gut-feeling” is not completely far off. 

A lot of new evidence is coming out about the intimate relationship between the human gut and brain. Even a couple decades ago, the idea that the bacteria in our gut impacts our brain and mental health would have been laughed at. However, this brain-gut connection is very real. 

To start, there are nerve signals constantly being sent from the brain to the gut, communicating about the speed of digestion, absorption of nutrients, elimination, and inflammation of the digestive system among other things. However, the gut also has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system (ENS), that has about 100 million nerve cells lining the esophagus to the rectum. This system not only responds to signals from the brain, but also sends signals to the brain too, often through the vagus nerve. The ENS can act as an independent agent and even communicate essential information with other cells throughout the body, such as our immune cells. It even creates its own set of chemical signals, called neurotransmitters, such as the inhibitory GABA neurotransmitter that helps regulate brain activity and can calm anxiety.

It gets interesting when we realize the impact that stress and negative emotions can have on this system. Many of us have probably experienced gastrointestinal (GI) issues when we are stressed, perhaps right before a big test or presentation. New research is confirming this, showing the direct impact of stress on movement in the GI tract, sensitivity of the system to bloating, and the makeup of the gut microbiome. This then causes a negative feedback loop back to brain exacerbating depression, fatigue, and cardiovascular disease. To add on, it is likely that it also works the other way around, such that GI issues can also lead to mood changes, such as depression and anxiety. 

More recently, research is also pointing at a connection between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and gut bacteria. For more information, read the community perspective written by one of Trayt’s cognitive scientists and research analysts, April Hishinuma. 

Next steps: 

Considering this strong mind-body and brain-gut connection, we need to move towards more integrated approaches towards treatment. For instance, treatments that are conventionally for the mind, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and antidepressants, might help with GI conditions like irritable bowel syndrome as well. Even meditation and yoga, have been shown to help GI symptoms by diminishing the stress response caused by our sympathetic nervous system. We also now know that diet can play a big role, with certain foods such as probiotics and omega-3 fats being strongly beneficial.  

At Trayt, we understand the importance of considering the whole patient. Which is why, despite being a platform focused on brain-based disorders, we make sure to ask patients about other physical symptoms they are experiencing, including an array of GI symptoms. 

As we move forward, it is important more than ever to understand different systems of the body as being interconnected, rather than isolated.