In many cases, there’s no telling exactly what the cause of a gastrointestinal disorder might be, but research increasingly suggests that problems with the gut may originate from the brain or vice versa.
The complex system that connects the brain and the gut is called the enteric nervous system, which is a network of neurons within the digestive tract that runs from the esophagus to the rectum.
The neurons produce chemicals called neurotransmitters that control digestive processes by sending signals to the brain, but the neurons also act as a two-way highway of communication between the gut and the brain. This means that the mind can influence what goes on in the digestive tract – including inducing that “gut feeling” – and the chemicals and microbiome in the gut may influence the mind.
The GI Tract and Mental Disorders
Scientists know that gut bacteria influence the brain, though they’re not entirely sure how yet. They have found that microbiota can produce mood-lifting neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, among others. This suggests that a healthy gut environment may be a key factor in preventing stress and depression.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine have found that just as healthy gut flora can influence good mood, imbalance and irritation in the gastrointestinal system can have negative effects on mental health.
“These new findings may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety,” said Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology. “That’s important, because up to 30 to 40 percent of the population has functional bowel problems at some point.”
If you’re experiencing stress or depression, it’s important to seek treatment for it, no matter what you suspect to be the cause. Getting help for both physical and mental symptoms is key to overall heath, especially considering how they may be connected.
In addition to seeing your doctor regularly, you may consider taking probiotic supplements to promote healthy gut bacteria, or practicing mindfulness techniques as a non-medicinal way of easing mental distress.