Your gut is a complex system of organs that includes your stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. It’s where the majority of the body’s immune cells are found, along with 100 trillion bacteria that help digest food and protect against disease. These bacteria also influence your moods and emotions but it’s not always clear how this connection works.
The Gut Is Connected To The Brain Via The Vagus Nerve
The gut and the brain are intimately connected. The gut is home to millions of neurons and a complex network of nerves that form a separate nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS). It’s made up of two layers: an inner layer called the myenteric plexus that connects to your spinal cord, and an outer layer called the submucosal plexus. These two layers communicate with each other via neurotransmitters like serotonin, which helps regulate mood, sleep patterns and hunger signals in your body.
The ENS also contains more than 500 million neurons, more than all the nerve cells found in your spine. This means that every single thought you have has been influenced by signals sent from your gut through these neurons traveling up into your brain via a network of complex pathways known as the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system. It connects your gut to your brain and is responsible for regulating digestion, heart rate, and breathing—which means it’s involved in how you experience emotions. The vagus nerve also has receptors that detect inflammation in the body, so stress that causes inflammation can affect it directly.
While there are many different types of nerves throughout our bodies that control various functions (called cranial nerves), only two motor nerves—the facial nerve and the glossopharyngeal nerve—use parasympathetic pathways to communicate with other parts of the nervous system. In fact, these two pathways are linked through an area called C 3-C 4, which means they share some neural connections but have unique functions as well.
The Gut And Brain Use The Same “Language”
The gut and brain communicate through the vagus nerve, which connects the two organs.
The vagus nerve is a key part of your nervous system. It’s responsible for regulating heart rate and breathing, among other functions. The gut uses this information to determine how it should respond when you’re in danger or experiencing stress—and vice versa. Your emotions can be felt in your gut because of the connection between those two systems.
In addition to providing data from the gut back up toward the brain (which will help explain why some people feel their emotions in their guts), this information exchange also happens in reverse order. If a person feels threatened by something externally, their muscles will tense up as a response; that change can be transmitted through the vagus nerve back down into the gut, meaning the person affected will feel that tension there as well.
The Gut And Brain Can Affect Each Other In Many Ways
The gut-brain axis is a term used to describe how your gut and brain are connected. In fact, the two organs are continually communicating with each other in many ways. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body and connects different parts of your digestive system to the brain. This nerve can carry signals from both organs back and forth, so if something happens in one area it’s likely to affect the other.
For example, when you’re stressed out or anxious about something, your heart rate speeds up as part of an automatic response that prepares your body for danger. If you’re already feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, then this can make digestion even more difficult because now there’s less blood flow going into your stomach due to increased heart rate. Ultimately, this means less nutrients are being absorbed into your body. In the long run this can be detrimental to physical and mental health.
A Healthy Gut Is Key For Mental Health
When it comes to the gut and brain, there’s no doubt that they are linked. The vagus nerve, which connects the two organs, allows for communication between them. Nerves in the gut actually use chemicals similar to those used by neurons in our brains.
So what does this mean for your mental health? A healthy gut is key for mental health because it influences more than digestion; it also helps regulate your immune system and even affects moods by releasing hormones into your bloodstream that affect areas of the brain involved with emotion.
It’s Not Always Clear How Gut Health Affects Emotions
While it’s not always clear how gut health affects emotions, some studies have shown that the gut-brain connection can influence emotional responses. For example, one 2010 study found that when participants were given probiotics, they reported feeling more positive emotions than those who did not receive probiotics.
Another study showed that people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) had lower levels of positive emotion and higher levels of negative emotion compared to healthy people. It’s important to note that these findings are still preliminary and more research needs to be done on this topic in order to better understand how emotions may affect gut health.
Some People Feel Their Emotions In Their Bodies More Than Others
Emotions are processed in the brain, which means that the emotion you feel has to travel from your brain through your nervous system and into your body. This is why some people experience their emotions in their gut—it’s a way of communicating with their bodies. However, not everyone feels their emotions in this way.
Research suggests there may be a link between how we experience our emotions and how we perceive them internally; for example, people with depression tend to have more bodily symptoms than people without depression do, such as stomach aches. Some researchers also believe that it’s possible for us to develop gastrointestinal symptoms as a result of experiencing strong emotions like anger or sadness. In other words, if we reject those feelings externally by reinforcing an emotional distance between ourselves and others, then eventually our bodies will start rejecting them internally too.
Your Gut Impacts Your Mental Health
While many people turn to the gut for answers about their emotions, it’s important to remember that it’s not always clear how gut health relates to feelings. But in some cases, there are facts that can help you understand how your body might be impacting your mental health:
- Your brain and gut actually use the same “language.” The gut and brain communicate through neural pathways known as the vagus nerve. This is why stress can cause digestive problems like constipation or diarrhea.
- The bacteria in your gut influence more than just digestion. Researchers have found that microorganisms in the intestines produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, which regulates moods, and dopamine, which helps control movement and cognition, such as attention. Because they’re produced by bacteria in our guts, these neurotransmitters travel through our bloodstreams before reaching their targets in other parts of our bodies or brains.
- A healthy gut is key to positive mental health. In addition to producing neurotransmitters that influence moods, research shows that having a healthy balance of good-to-bad bacteria may buffer against depression.
If you often feel your emotions in your gut, consider making changes to your diet and lifestyle that support healthy digestion and gut bacteria. If nothing else, knowing that there are concrete links between our feelings and our body can give us more confidence in making positive changes in our lives.
We Can Help!
MHThrive provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any mental health or substance abuse issues, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
Online Treatment Programs provides Teletherapy Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs allowing participants to receive intensive therapy with our licensed therapists and psychiatrists without having to leave home. If you or someone you know is struggling to overcome depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, trauma, panic attacks, PTSD, alcoholism, drug abuse, or other mental health or addiction issues, we can help. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our teletherapy programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
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