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The Brain-Gut Connection

brain gut graphic
brain gut graphic

Did you know your mind and gut are connected? Having “butterflies” in your stomach when you are nervous or having an upset stomach when you are stressed is proof that our brain and gut are talking to each other. 

But How? 

Your digestive tract comprises 100 million mesh-like body neurons, the network of nerve cells referred to as the enteric nervous system. It’s so extensive that some scientists call the enteric nervous system our “second brain.”   

The vagus nerve (a thick cable of neurons running between the base of the brain and our gut) allows the brain and the gut to communicate with each other, with information flowing bi-directionally. This is also known as the gut-brain axis.  

The vagus nerve isn’t the only way the brain and gut communicate — your gut microbiota also participates in these conversations. The gut microbiota refers to the trillions of microbes that reside in your gut and play an integral role in your health.  

The gut microbiota communicates by producing and storing over 30 neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the body). In fact, your gut microbiota produces over 95 percent of serotonin (known as “the happy chemical”), directly affecting your mood and well-being. What’s more, about 80 to 90 percent of the neurons in the vagus nerve are actually sending messages from the gut to the brain, with 10 to 20 percent sending commands from the brain to control muscles that move food through the gut. This means the signals generated in the gut can massively influence the brain. This can explain why digestive problems can cause anxiety and stress. 

Studies have shown that psychologically based approaches lead to greater improvement in digestive symptoms compared with only conventional medical treatment.

Techniques such as meditation, yoga, biofeedback, cognitive behavioural therapy, gut-directed relaxation training, and exercising are all proven therapies to help you better deal with stress levels and improve mood and, consequently, symptoms of digestive discomfort. 

We also know that eating well is one of the fastest ways to influence gut microbiota. This includes getting adequate fibre in your diet and focusing on dietary variety, especially those of plant-based foods. 

Giving your gut microbiota the nutrition it needs to flourish will help take care of you. 

Kelsey headshot

Kelsey Cheyne

Executive Director at Canadian Digestive Health Foundation

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