Understanding the Gut-Brain Axis
Many of us have experienced the sensation of “butterflies in the stomach” when we’re excited or nervous. This feeling is caused by the complex two-way connection between your brain and your gut, known as the gut-brain axis. This article offers an introduction to the gut-brain axis. Keep reading to learn about how your gut communicates with your brain and what this might mean for your overall health and wellness.
How the Brain and Gut Communicate
The gut-brain axis, also known as the gut-brain connection, refers to the two-way communications between your gut and your brain. Specifically, these communications flow between your central nervous system and your enteric nervous system.
Your central nervous system is your body’s processing center, and it consists of your brain and spinal cord. The enteric nervous system is the network of nerves that lines the length of your gastrointestinal tract and controls your digestive system. It’s sometimes known as your “second brain” or the brain in your gut.
The communications between these two brains are complex, explains in a review published in the Annals of Gastroenterology. Many parts of the body may play a role in gut-brain crosstalk, including the pituitary gland, adrenal glands, and even your gut microbiome. The gut microbiome consists of the trillions of bacteria, archaea, and other microorganisms that live inside your digestive system.
The vagus nerve is an especially important part of the gut-brain axis. It serves as a link between your central nervous system and your enteric nervous system. It transmits signals down from your brain to your gut, as well as up from your gut, to your brain.
Health Implications of the Gut-Brain Connection
The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication between your brain and your gut. This means your gut health may influence your brain health and vice versa.
How Gut Health Influences Brain Health (and Mental Health!)
Problems in your gut, especially imbalances in the micro-organisms in your gut, could influence your brain and your mental health. Here’s what the science has to say about how your gut health could impact your brain health.
Dysbiosis, an imbalance of the micro-organisms that live in your gut, has been linked to depression, according to a review published in Cureus. Changes in the composition of these micro-organisms may activate an inflammatory response in the gut, and through the gut-brain axis, inflammation in the brain.
There’s also evidence that regulating intestinal microbiota can help treat anxiety symptoms, according to a review of the scientific literature published in General Psychiatry. Some of the studied methods of regulating the microbiota included probiotics and special diets, such as low FODMAP diets. Low FODMAP is a diet that restricts certain types of short-chain carbohydrates.
How Brain Health (and Mental Health) Influences Gut Health
Just as your gut health can influence your brain health, problems with your brain — including with your mental health — could lead to problems with your gut.
Migraines involve intense headaches, but they can affect your gut, too. Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of migraine attacks. Plus, people who experience frequent headaches may be more likely to develop some gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome.
Even stress can cause many gastrointestinal problems. It may trigger pain, bloating, nausea, and other uncomfortable symptoms. In severe cases, stress could even cause vomiting. This means that the relaxation methods that help you feel mentally healthier could also improve your overall wellness.
Stimulating the Vagus Nerve for Gut-Brain Health
As previously mentioned, the vagus nerve plays an important role in the gut-brain axis. Stimulating the vagus nerve has been shown to positively impact both ends of the gut-brain axis, with studies suggesting it can offer relief for conditions such as depression and inflammatory bowel disease.
An implantable vagus nerve stimulator is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat severe depression. But there are also alternative methods that could help stimulate the vagus nerve, including:
- Yoga. Some yoga-based practices, such as those that emphasize yogic
breathing, may stimulate the vagus nerve.
- Meditation. The increased positive emotions that can come with meditation have been linked to increases in vagal tone.
Hypnotherapy. Another mind-body intervention, hypnotherapy, may
increase vagal tone.
Cold water immersion. Cold exposure has been linked to vagal activation;
plus, a cold plunge is a great opportunity to be mindful and breathe.
Try Cold Water Immersion With Ice Barrel
Stimulating the vagus nerve may have a positive impact on the gut-brain axis, and a cold plunge is one of the natural ways to do that. Ice Barrel makes it easy to bring cold water immersion into your routine. Simply fill your barrel with ice and water, and take a cold plunge in the comfort and privacy of your own home.
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