Until recently, we didn’t know there was a gut-brain, one with the familiar neural cells and synapsis, only fewer. Now, scientists are discovering its vital role in overseeing the microbiome and more. We may just be scraping the surface of how important this other brain is.
by Peter McCarthy
A Gut-Brain with Many Implications
For a long time, scientists believed that the gut was nothing more than a simple digestive organ. However, recent studies show that the gut is home to its own complex neural network. This network, known as the gut-brain, plays a vital role in regulating the microbiome and maintaining overall health.
The gut-brain consists of neural cells and synapses, just like the brain in your skull. However, there are significantly fewer of these cells in the gut-brain. This may be why scientists have only recently started to become aware of its importance.
The gut-brain oversees a wide range of functions, including digestion, immune response, and emotional regulation. It also interacts with the brain in your skull, which may explain why mood disorders have been linked with the microbiome.
The gut-brain is also responsible for regulating the immune system and metabolism. It does this by interacting with and sending messages to two different nervous systems: the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls involuntary body functions, and the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is located in the gastrointestinal tract.
The gut-brain also affects the rest of the body because it regulates the microbiome. There are trillions of organisms living in the gastrointestinal tract, and these organisms perform many important functions in maintaining overall health, including producing vitamins and assisting with immune response.
Feed Your Brain Well
This is why taking care of your microbiome is so important; if you don’t take good care of your microbiome, the gut-brain won’t get the nutrients it needs to function properly.
Because there is a direct connection between the gut-brain and the brain in your skull, scientists have started investigating whether or not mood disorders can be linked with the malfunctioning of this system. In particular, studies have shown a strong link between anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome.
One study found that when people with IBS were shown images of threatening faces, they had increased activity in three regions of their brains: the amygdala, insula cortex, and prefrontal cortex. These are the same regions that are activated when someone is experiencing anxiety.
Researchers are still trying to determine whether or not the gut-brain affects your mood, or if it is more closely tied with regulating your overall physical health. However, they believe that one of the most important functions of the gut-brain is its ability to send messages between different parts of the body.
…an innate connection…
There’s growing evidence that almost every neurological disorder has some component in which either the brain or the peripheral nervous system is involved, some experts believe. There’s an intimate connection between what’s happening in your gut and what’s happening in your brain.
It will likely be years before scientists significantly expand their knowledge of the gut-brain axis to the point where they know exactly what its role is in overall health. However, there have been some interesting studies that have begun to shine a light on the matter.
“In many ways, the enteric nervous system could be thought of as a “brain within a brain”‘ – researchers wrote in 2015.
The Gut-Brain and Mood Disorders
It’s not just physical health that can be affected by the gut-brain. Scientists have also found some links between mood disorders and the gut-brain axis, which could lead to new treatments for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
One study conducted at McMaster University in Canada examined the connection between IBS and major depressive disorder and found that people with IBS were almost three times as likely to have depression. In addition, the researchers found that major depressive disorder was more common in people who had both IBS and anxiety disorders.
In 2014, psychiatrists from Northwestern University published an article linking irritable bowel syndrome with mood disorders. They explained that a number of previous studies have found that people with IBS are at a greater risk for developing depression, panic disorder, and non-cardiac chest pain syndrome.
There may also be a strong link between autism spectrum disorders and the gut-brain. Autism spectrum disorders are known to involve abnormal development of the brain that leads to impaired social behavior, difficulty communicating, and repetitive patterns of behavior.
The Gut-Brain and Autoimmune Disorders
Scientists have also found evidence that the gut-brain could play a role in autoimmune disorders. While they are not sure how it works, studies show there is some type of relationship between the two. For example, researchers found that people with inflammatory bowel disease were more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.
In addition, doctors discovered a strong connection between psoriasis and mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder. Because both these disorders involve an abnormal reaction by the body’s immune system, it suggests there could be a link between the two.
The gut has a constant dialogue with the brain, and this study shows how important that dialogue is, a researcher noted. These findings may help people who suffer from both major depression or psoriasis.
Gut Bacteria Affects Brain Chemistry
One of the reasons why scientists suspect that there is a strong link between gut bacteria and mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression is because of how it affects brain chemistry. Researchers found that when mice were given antibiotics to destroy their gut bacteria, they became more anxious and their brains changed in chemical composition. These changes caused the mice to behave differently in social situations.
Bacteria in the gut play a significant role in regulating normal behavior. This strengthens the links between gut bacteria and mental health.
Gut Bacteria Affects Mental Health Treatment
In addition to the strong link between gut bacteria and mental illnesses, scientists have found that it can also play a role in how effective treatments are for these conditions. They explain that this is because psychiatric drugs change the composition of our gut bacteria. For example, researchers from John Hopkins University discovered that when mice with depression were given a strain of probiotics, they found the mice had decreased anxiety.
“It is likely that… psychiatric drugs influence the microbiota in different ways,” said Jane Foster, Ph.D., who led the research team at John Hopkins University. “Understanding what is happening may help us to better treat patients over a longer time frame.”
Reducing Stress Could Improve Mental Health
In addition, many doctors believe that one of the major causes of mental health problems is stress. Research has shown us that stress can change gut bacteria. Consequently, changing the composition of our gut could improve these conditions by reducing stress and helping to regulate mood.
Brains send signals through a complex system via hormone signaling. Some signals relay information about stress. Altering gut bacteria may alter brain signals, for example, and treat some forms of mental illness.
Mental Health Affects The Gut
Studies have found that the opposite is true as well. The gut affects mental health because it can release neurotransmitters. For example, research from the University of Southampton found that certain types of bacteria in the gut produce GABA, which is what keeps our nerves calm.
“This suggests a link between gut bacteria and the central nervous system. Certain probiotics may have a beneficial effect on the brain and mental health.”
What’s more, this can affect how we feel emotionally as well. Research published in Neuropsychopharmacology found a strong connection between gut bacteria and depression. They found that when mice were given a strain of bacteria known to be good for the gut and brain, they seemed happier.
This study suggests that we might develop ways to improve the mood of people with depression by altering their gut flora.
What Can We Do?
The more we learn about how the gut and brain communicate, the more we can do to improve mental health. This is especially true if we know that things like stress and poor diet can change gut bacteria. Consequently, maintaining a healthy lifestyle of diet and exercise may keep our gut and brain healthy.
This means that digging into how the gut and brain communicate could improve our mental health. If we find ways to regulate mood by changing gut bacteria, such as reducing stress, it could help those with mental health problems.
Also on the plus side, this could help us regulate mood disorders without using medication. Anxiety, depression, and stress are some of the biggest causes of people seeking medication; so, finding something that is natural to use instead could have major benefits.
Exploring the gut-brain and what it does is in its infancy. Continuing research promises big strides in improving public health. It’s anyone’s guess how far it can go.
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