Think back to the last time you had butterflies before a date, or a sinking feeling in your stomach when you got some bad news. Those sensations are triggered by your gut and brain communicating with each other – that’s why we talk about ‘gut feelings’.
Most of instinctively know there’s a link between the two, but research is now catching up with the idea of a connection between our gut and our moods.
The second brain in your belly
Your gut responds to emotions, receives impulses and logs experiences. It’s lined with over 100 million neurons – more than your spinal cord – and their job is to keep in contact with your brain.Scientists think part of their work is to deal with the complex digestive process without the brain in your head having to get involved with your daily diet.1 But our gut brain gets involved in plenty of other interactions.
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An information superhighway
It’s well known that your mental state can affect your gut – experiencing an upset tum when you’re stressed, for example – but scientists now know that this interaction also happens the other way around.
Information is passed up to your brain via the vagus nerve that runs from the abdomen to the brain stem. And your gut bacteria play a crucial part in this communication as they produce neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, such as dopamine, serotonin and GABA.
Friendly food for thought
What this may mean is that your gut bacteria can directly affect your emotional state, and introducing ‘friendly’ bugs into your gut could potentially help you feel more positive.A study by UCLA in 2013 examined 36 women split into three groups: those who ate two bacteria-containing yoghurts every day for a month, those who ate a dairy product without any bacteria, and a control group.2 Results showed that those in the bacteria yoghurt group had changes in the part of the brain that processes emotions linked to visual stimuli, with some decrease in activity, suggesting a reduction in anxiety. The research could one day lead to so-called psychobiotics – medicines based on bacteria – being used as treatments for mood disorders including depression.3
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1. Adam Hadhazy. Think Twice: How the Gut's "Second Brain" Influences Mood and Well-Being. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/
2. Rachel Champeau. Changing gut bacteria through diet affects brain function, UCLA study shows. Available from: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/changing-gut-bacteria-through-245617