The gut-mind connection: Your mental struggles could have physical origins

New research has found that mental disorders can stem from an unhealthy gut and thus can be treated through healing this important organ.

gut health mental health microbiome
© ChrisChrisW/Getty Images
gut health mental health microbiome

Have you ever followed a ‘gut feeling’, had butterflies in your stomach or experienced a gutwrenching dread? These sensations all stem from the peculiar connection that exists between the gut and the brain.

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The importance of the gut

The gut is home to a microbial environment called the microbiome. It is full of bacteria that communicate with the brain. The gut also happens to regulate many important bodily processes which is why many have dubbed it ‘the second brain’. The microbiome defends the body against infections, digests nutrients that would be otherwise unprocessable, and creates new blood vessels. The gut also makes some of the most important chemicals for the body in neurotransmitters. These chemicals not only help neurons communicate with each other and regulate important functions that affect our quality of life.

A few examples are:

  • Epinephrine: aka adrenaline. Both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. This chemical is responsible for stress regulation.
  • Norepinephrine: it controls the body's fight or flight response in moments of perceived danger to ensure the safety of the body.
  • Dopamine: This chemical controls motivation, reward and the coordination of movements in the body. Dopamine, also known as the pleasure chemical is also the target of many addictive drugs as it is increased through their consumption thereby achieving the euphoric effect many addicts seek.
  • Serotonin: this hormone and neurotransmitter controls mood, sleep, anxiety sexuality and appetite.

New findings

Recent studies have shown that an unhealthy gut could contribute to a vast array of mental health disorders. People dealing with irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, bloating and stomach pain are more susceptible to falling into depression, anxiety and other mental disorders; it was initially believed that the opposite was true. According to Jay Pasricha, MD director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology:

For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around.

He added:

These new findings may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety.

As such, these new findings provide new insight into mental health treatments; an emphasis on eliminating the source of damage to the microbiome might result in the alleviation of mental symptoms.

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Hopkins Medicine: The Brain-Gut Connection

Optum: The surprising link between your microbiome and mental health

Verywellmind: What Are Neurotransmitters?

Cleveland Clinic: The Gut-Brain Connection

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