Understanding how the gut talks to the brain could improve IBS and mood

When people talk about their “gut instincts,” they often are referring to intuition, that feeling of knowing something negative is about to happen. Research now supports the idea that a premonition is actually the body’s “second brain” alerting us to an impending event. Some refer to it as “butterflies in the stomach,” the heebie-jeebies, or the shivers.

Located deep in the gut is what scientists refer to as the second brain — the enteric nervous system (ENS). According to Jay Pasricha, MD of Johns Hopkins Medicine, ENS is embedded in the lining of the gastrointestinal walls. This complex system has more nerve cells than the spinal cord — 100 million neurons — and can affect digestion, mood, health, and even how we think. It's now thought that ENS could also contribute to other conditions like memory loss, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and IBS.

When researchers talk about the gut-brain axis, they’re referring to the ability of both organs to “talk with each other” seamlessly. For example, when a person simply thinks about eating a favorite meal, the body then releases stomach juices to prepare the food for digestion. When someone feels a negative emotion such as stress, anxiety, anger, or depression, the brain triggers the GI track to speed up bowel movements, leading to diarrhea. That’s the gut-brain axis at work.

IBS is a disorder of the gut-brain communication. Alter the communication between the gut-brain axis and the ensuing result is usually diarrhea (or constipation), nausea, indigestion, and pain. So, what role do the trillions of microbes living play in this scenario? Current evidence shows that dysbiosis (an imbalance in the microflora) may drive IBS symptoms. Disrupt this delicate balance and the brain reacts. Eating a meal that could trigger an IBS issue can lead to anxiety and fear, which then impacts gut transit time. Long-term issues with the gut’s microflora could influence other conditions, such as the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

This new understanding of the brain-gut connection also helps explain how treatments such as antidepressants, hypnotherapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy are important to calming IBS symptoms. It appears that a large part of emotions may be influenced by the nerves in the gut.

What do these new results potentially mean? Taking better care of the GI system not only could help regulate IBS symptoms, but also reduce the risk of developing other conditions or mental health distress.

Rebalancing the gut-brain axis

It may sound simple, but improving gut health is not that easy, especially for those who have been consuming foods that don’t agree with their digestive system. However, transitioning to healthier eating can be done with the help of a dietitian. Here are three tips from Sabine Hazan, MD, gastroenterologist and author of Let’s Talk Sh**.

Choose foods that are high in fiber

Carrots, beets, broccoli, and fennel are full of naturally gut-enhancing fiber, which feeds the good bacteria. Apples, pineapple, blueberries, plums, and banana are rich sources of fiber, too – but choose wisely! Some of these fruits and veggies may have FODMAPs that can trigger IBS symptoms.

Consider supplementing diet with probiotics

A growing number of research have supported the idea of probiotics for improving gut health. They can give the microbiota a boost and restore gut health under certain conditions. Consider kefir, Greek yogurt, kombucha, and probiotic supplements, which can contain bacteria like Lactobacillus, Bifidobacteria, and Streptococcus thermophilus that have been identified by research as good for the gut.

Drink less alcohol

Alcohol can not only wreak havoc on the GI track, but also lead to more painful gas (read an article about it here). Alcohol also leads to inflammation.