Most of us can relate to the experience of having butterflies in our stomach, or to a visceral gut-wrenching feeling, and how often are we told not to ignore our “gut-instinct” or “gut-feeling” when making a decision.
Even from our simple slang, it’s clear just how symbolically connected the gut is to our emotions. Now, there’s tangible proof to support these popular metaphors.
We all have a microbiome, and they are as unique as our neural pathways
Research has shown that the body is actually composed of more bacteria than cells. We are more bug than human! Collectively, these trillions of bacteria are called the microbiome. Most of those bacteria reside in our gut, sometimes referred to as the gut microbiota, and they play multiple roles in our overall health.
The gut is no longer seen as an entity with the sole purpose of helping with all aspects of digestion. It’s also being considered as a key player in regulating inflammation and immunity.
A healthy gut consists of different iterations of bacteria for different people, and this diversity maintains wellness. A shift away from “normal” gut microbiota diversity is calleddysbiosis, and dysbiosis may contribute to disease. In light of this, the microbiome has become the focus of much research attention as a new way of understanding autoimmune, gastrointestinal, and even brain disorders.
The benefit of a healthy gut is illustrated most effectively during early development. Research has indicated just how sensitive a fetus is to any changes in a mother’s microbiotic makeup, so much so that it can alter the way a baby’s brain develops. If a baby is born via cesarean section, it misses an opportunity to ingest the mother’s bacteria as it travels down the vaginal canal. Studies show that those born via c-section have to work to regain the same diversity in their microbiome as those born vaginally. Throughout our lives, our microbiome continues to be a vulnerable entity, and as we are exposed to stress, toxins, chemicals, certain diets, and even exercise, our microbiome fluctuates for better or worse.
The gut as second brain
Our gut microbiota play a vital role in our physical and psychological health via its own neural network: the enteric nervous system (ENS), a complex system of about 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut.
The ENS is sometimes called the “second brain,” and it actually arises from the same tissues as our central nervous system (CNS) during fetal development. Therefore, it has many structural and chemical parallels to the brain.
Our ENS doesn’t wax philosophical or make executive decisions like the gray shiny mound in our skulls. Yet, in a miraculously orchestrated symphony of hormones, neurotransmitters, and electrical impulses through a pathway of nerves, both “brains” communicate back and forth. These pathways include and involve endocrine, immune, and neural pathways.
At this point in time, even though the research is inchoate and complex, it is clear that the brain and gut are so intimately connected that it sometimes seems like one system, not two.
Our emotions play a big role in functional gastrointestinal disorders
Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it has become clear that emotional and psychosocial factors can trigger symptoms in the gut. This is especially true in cases when the gut is acting up and there’s no obvious physical cause.
The functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) are a group of more than 20 chronic and hard to treat medical conditions of the gastrointestinal tract that constitute a large proportion of the presenting problems seen in clinical gastroenterology.
While FGID’s were once thought to be partly “in one’s head,” a more precise conceptualization of these difficulties posits that psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as the modulation of symptoms. In other words, psychological factors can literally impact upon physical factors, like the movement and contractions of the GI tract, causing, inflammation, pain, and other bowel symptoms.