What Is the Gut-Brain Connection?

You know the feeling you get when you’re about to head into a tense situation? Maybe you hate your job and dread walking into the office each day. Perhaps you’re about to have a long-overdue conversation with your significant other about the future of your relationship. Whatever the scenario might be, it stands to reason you can gauge how nervous or anxious you are by how your stomach is acting. Whether your stomach is in knots or you have the sensation of butterflies fluttering around, there seems to be a connection between what you’re feeling and how your digestive system is responding.

The entire human body works together in synchronicity to keep everything running. Still, some find it curious when one seemingly unrelated part of the body causes a response in another part of the body. The gut-brain axis (1) is a term used to describe the connection between the mind and the digestive system. If you’re wondering what, exactly, your stomach has to do with your emotions, now is the time to explore the gut-brain connection and learn what you can do to improve your health.

Basics of the Gut-Brain Connection

The first thing to understand is that the gut-brain axis is bidirectional, with both the gut and the brain impacting one another in an equal way. This is important to know because it means the health of your stomach can impact your mood, and vice-versa.

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers (2). Fired across synapses between neurons, these messengers are responsible for a wide array of functions. Each neurotransmitter is responsible for a different function: serotonin (known as the “happy” chemical) elevates mood and creates a sense of well being, dopamine creates feelings of pleasure, and so on (3).

While the brain produces neurotransmitters, it might be interesting to learn that the digestive system is also responsible for producing certain messengers (4). One important neurotransmitter produced by microbes in the gut is gamma-aminobutyric acid. Also referred to as GABA, this transmitter produces and regulates feelings of fear (5). This is a big part of why a situation that makes you nervous makes itself known in your stomach and surrounding areas.

Enter the Enteric Nervous System

The digestive system is home to what many experts refer to as the “second brain,” also known as the ENS or enteric nervous system (6). Evolutionarily, the “second brain” is thought to exist to make digestion more efficient. The less the central nervous system focuses on digestive matters and upsets, the more it can focus on other important functions (7).

Unfortunately, there are still some shortcomings with how our bodies process stress and fear. The body is not able to discern between mental stress and physical, which means your body produces the same response when you’re thinking about a stressful job as it would if you were being hunted by a pack of wolves (8). You might realize the two scenarios aren’t equivocal, but the gut-brain axis is reading both situations as “dangerous.”

Inflammation Concerns

More often than not, the symptoms of stress begin to fade after the situation that caused the fear has been diffused. Still, there are times when the “fight or flight” neurotransmitters keep getting produced even after a “threat” has been resolved. This, in turn, can lead to chronic inflammation. Inflammation is actually a healthy response of the body (9). When a part of the body becomes inflamed, it is the body’s way of protecting itself, removing harmful stimuli, and triggering the process of healing. In small doses, inflammation is integral to good health. When it becomes chronic, however, it opens the door for more complicated health issues (10).

Inflammation is often linked to the health of the gut. The good bacteria found in the gut helps to regulate healthy responses, but can falter when microflora is in short supply. Beyond increased inflammatory responses, diminished levels of healthy gut bacteria may also lead to depression. This connection is most prevalent in cases where doctors prescribe antidepressants for patients suffering from stomach conditions like IBS (11).

How to Improve Gut and Brain Functions

So, you might be wondering how you can promote a healthy gut-brain connection. Here are a handful of simple things you can try:

Limit Your Stress

This is going to sound impossible, but the most important thing you can do to improve the health of your mind and gut is to limit stressors in your environment (12). If you hate your job and go into work each day dreading the unwarranted stress you’ll encounter, then you’re going to be in a constant state of discomfort and worry. The same is true of a bad relationship or any daily interaction that causes you anguish. You won’t be able to control every stressor around you, but you can change factors that prove to be toxic to your mental and physical health.


Foods that contain natural probiotics, like yogurt or kombucha, may be the easiest way to improve the functions of the gut-brain axis. Probiotics enrich and strengthen the helpful bacteria in your gut, which can improve digestion (13), inflammatory response (14), cardiovascular health (15), and more. While some foods contain healthy doses of probiotics, you can also find a huge assortment of probiotic supplements to help you along your way to balanced microflora.

Cut Out the Junk

“You are what you eat” is a true statement. You might not transform into a doughnut after eating an entire box yourself, but what you put into your body becomes a part of your body and its functions. Processed foods don’t offer much when it comes to encouraging the growth of healthy gut bacteria. Learn what foods are best for your specific health goals by speaking with your health care provider or a licensed nutritionist.

Load Up On Brain Foods

Your entire body benefits when you consume the right foods. Fats, for example, are crucial to the success of the brain. People may have mixed responses when it comes to consuming fats, but eating the right fatty foods like avocados can do wonders for the health of your brain. Additional foods that are said to support cognitive functions are salmon, coffee, dark chocolate, blueberries, turmeric, eggs, and walnuts.


Have some thoughts about the gut-brain connection? Share it in the comments section!


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