The brain and gut connection: What you can do to manage your digestive symptoms

  • 2 Minutes Read
Sue Heikkinen
Sue Heikkinen, MS, RDN, CDCES, BC-ADM, ACE-PT - Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist

You may already know that stress often adds to digestive symptoms, but did you know that the brain and gut connection means that your gut actually sends signals to your brain?

Brain and gut connection

The brain and gut connection is a two-way street

Our gut and brain are intimately connected-nerve signals are sent to and from both organs.

Brain to gut: how stress affects your gut

When you experience stress, your body prepares for "fight or flight." These nerve signals put the gut on standby so that the body doesn't waste energy on digestion when it needs to focus on survival. This system works well when real, life-threatening stress exists but eventually creates digestive woes when responding to emotional and chronic stress.

Stress signals from the brain can affect the digestive tract's movement, causing the digestive tract to move more slowly (leading to constipation) or too quickly (causing diarrhea).

Of course, stress can also make it more difficult to exercise and eat right despite our best intentions, further adding to digestive symptoms.

Gut to brain: how your digestive tract affects your mood

Have you ever acted on a "gut feeling" or experienced "butterflies in your stomach?" These common phrases indicate that we indeed respond to signals from our gut. In fact, the collection of nerves in the digestive tract is often called the "second brain."

Your gut microbiome, the collection of bacteria and other microorganisms, is like a fingerprint-unique to you. Influenced by genetics, food, environment, and medications, your microbiome may play a role in your emotional state. The microbes in the gut produce hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers between cells) that appear to influence stress and anxiety. In fact, research is uncovering a link between the gut microbiome and resilience to stress.

Digestive symptoms can trigger the release of distress signals to the brain. This is a potential explanation as to why people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Also, IBS sufferers often experience increased pain signals from the gut (known as visceral hypersensitivity) compared to people without IBS.

What can you do to harness the brain and gut connection?

Managing stress is easier said than done, but it's an essential first step in improving your digestion. For many, exercise, cognitive behavior therapy (learning how to switch negative self-talk), relaxation techniques (e.g., deep breathing, meditation, massage, tai chi, and yoga), and antidepressant medications are effective. The American College of Gastroenterology even suggests gut-directed psychotherapy, including hypnotherapy, as a treatment option for IBS.

Unfortunately, there is not yet enough evidence to recommend specific probiotic supplements to alter your mood or cure your symptoms. In the meantime, focus on a healthy, plant-rich diet associated with a healthy gut microbiome and numerous other health benefits.

Tracking can help you manage your digestive symptoms

Do you know which foods make your symptoms worse? Tracking your food and beverage intake will help you identify triggers. Take advantage of MyNetDiary's "Notes" section to track stress and other factors.

Take time to learn more about your body's responses to negative stress and see if certain techniques help you manage the stress and improve your brain and gut connection at the same time. I have a "gut feeling" you'll feel better in the long run!

Other articles that may be of interest:

What is stress eating and 3 tips to overcome it
Did you know that stress can directly impact your diet? Here's how to stay on track when you feel overwhelmed
Healthy ways to deal with stress so it doesn't sabotage your weight loss

Adapted from original content by Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDE

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Other Health Issues->Gastrointestinal (Gut)
Apr 14, 2021

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