The Brain-Gut Connection

By Molly O'Brien

The expression “gut feeling” is grounded in scientific fact. The nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach is one way your intuition expresses its opinion. When you “go with your gut,” you are responding to a visceral feeling, perhaps guiding you to decide if someone new can be trusted and whether doing so is a right or wrong choice.

Some researchers call the GI tract a “second brain.” It includes your entire digestive system from the mouth through the esophagus, into your stomach, and through your intestines. It ends at the rectum. Altogether, it contains more nerve cells than the spinal cord.

According to a study published in Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity, the GI tract stores 95 percent of the body’s serotonin — a neurotransmitter that regulates happiness, anxiety and other moods. GI symptoms have been linked to painful emotional conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression. In fact, according to a study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, physicians now use psychological approaches such as cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness training as complementary treatments for digestive problems.

Dr. Jamie Smolen, a psychiatrist from the University of Florida, explained that a brain-gut communication loops exists that is responsible for its own harmony or imbalance. For example, the body and the mind can both experience anxiety. “We (physically) feel exactly the way we are thinking and we think exactly the way we are feeling, according to neuroscientist, Dr. Joe Dispenza,” said Dr. Smolen. The chronically stressed individual develops problems on both ends of the brain-gut loop, which become perpetuated rather than healed. It is as though both become dependent of the other to remain consistently in a state of dis-ease.

Take indigestion, for example. When an upset stomach causes a person anxiety, cortisol is released. This hormone travels to a large number of cells in the GI tract and creates a stressful physiological environment which interferes with normal functions. Healthy digestive processes are not carried out efficiently and GI serotonin levels may be thrown out of balance. The individual has increased anxious thoughts about being in physical discomfort. The result may ultimately worsen the indigestion through the brain-gut loop. “The brain and digestive system are locked in a sick dance,” said Dr. Smolen. “If something doesn’t break the cycle, stress causes the continued release of harmful inflammatory hormones and the GI problem persists.”

Typically, when we experience GI pain, we take something like an antacid to treat the symptoms. While this may arrest unpleasant sensations, it does nothing to relieve an unhealthy cycle between the brain and GI tract. Fortunately, the brain, a “soft tissues computer,” is a programmable organ though meditation and mindfulness training. It can be fed new information to set things right. Rather than treat surface symptoms with only antacids, mindfulness training can help the individual access the problem that stressful thinking and feeling has caused in the brain-gut system.

One way to interrupt the disease cycle and encourage the return of normal function is mindfulness training. Mindfulness is a method of directing the brain to place its attention on whatever is happening in the present moment e.g. deep breathing. This awareness can have a calming effect on the brain. The practice also allows the brain to accept the presence of stomach discomfort rather than complain mentally and suffer emotionally, even more.  This immediately decreases or even stops the secretion of cortisol. As a result, the cells in the GI tract get a reprieve. Without being bombarded by this stress hormone, they return to carrying out their normal job of digesting foods and processing serotonin — the “feel-good” hormone. With continued and consistent practice, mindfulness can help to restore the normal digestive process and regulate the healthy functional properties of serotonin.


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Molly O'Brien is a freelance writer based in Gainesville, Florida. She specializes in community and personal health topics. Born in Huntington, New York, she graduated from SUNY Farmingdale with a Bachelor of Science in biology. Molly has a passion for literature, language and art in all forms. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in English with a specialization in creative writing.