That fluttering butterflies feeling you get when you’re nervous is more than just a feeling in the pit of your stomach.
They’re a sign of the fact that our brain – all the way up in our head – and our gut – all the way down in our tummies – are actually inextricably intertwined.
The gut has the obvious role of digesting food, but it also has many less obvious functions.
It plays a role in immunity, allergies, the production of neurotransmitters, and we now know that there is a direct connection between the gut and our brain.
Most of us instinctively know there’s a link between the two, but research is now catching up with the idea of a connection between them.
Studies have found that an entire communication system between the brain and gut exists, which is commonly referred to as the gut-brain axis.
For more on this special and fascinating connection, including how it works and our impact on it, keep reading this article.
In this article, we will cover
- What is the gut-brain axis and why is it important?
- Does it really exist?
- What does it do? And can we influence how it works?
What is the gut-brain axis?
The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication pathway that exists between the gut and the brain.
Not only does the brain know what is happening in the gut, the gut has access to the emotional and cognitive centres in the brain too.
This means that conditions in the gut have an impact on what the brain does and how we feel, and conversely, how we feel emotionally can impact on how the gut functions.1
- The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication channel that runs from your brain to your gut and back again
- Our gut has the ability to influence what our brain does and how we feel
- At the same time, our emotions can also impact how our gut functions
Why is the gut-brain axis important and what does it do?
A good illustration of the gut-brain axis in action is when we get ‘knots’ in our stomach because we feel nervous.
Stress or anxiety can often cause digestive issues, such as constipation or diarrhoea, which is a result of the close relationship between the brain and gut.
When something stressful happens, our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol. This hormone has quite a few jobs, including reducing inflammation and – key in this context – diverting energy to the ‘fight or flight’ response.2
This involves energy being funnelled to the muscles and away from the digestive system.
As a result, food ends up staying in the intestines rather than being digested.
In turn, this can cause inflammation in the gut, which alters the intestinal environment and disrupts the microbiome.3
And this disruption means that all of the really important jobs that gut bacteria perform, are no longer happening as efficiently or effectively as they used to.
Because of the two-way feedback, unfortunately, this inflammation and reduced functioning in the gut leads to altered communication with the brain, which can generate more stress, and so on.
What’s taking place here, is a stress-digestion cycle. In fact, people who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are reportedly more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.4
However, the good news is there are numerous ways we can improve our gut health that centre around general healthy living (e.g. eating a healthy, balanced diet and exercising regularly).
If you do happen to suffer from any digestive issues, or depression, anxiety or stress, speak to your GP.
They will be able to provide you with an accurate diagnosis and advise you on the best treatment based on your symptoms.
- Feeling stressed or anxious can lead to digestive issues, such as constipation or diarrhoea, which are caused by the close relationship between the brain and gut
- When we feel stressed, our bodies produce cortisol, which helps divert energy into the ‘fight or flight’ response, with energy being channelled into the digestive system
- This can lead to gut inflammation, which alters the intestinal environment and causes microbiome disruption
Friendly gut bacteria explained
You may not be aware, but there are millions of bacteria living inside your gut. This bacteria is also known as your microbiome or your gut flora.
Friendly gut bacteria explained
How can we influence how it works?
Due to the link between ENS and CNS now being established, some medical professionals are choosing to offer treatments that communicate with both ‘brains’, so to speak.
For instance, gastroenterologists may prescribe certain antidepressants for IBS —not because they think the problem is all in a patient’s head, but because these medications calm symptoms by acting on nerve cells in the gut.6
At the same time, improved gut health has been recognised as having a positive effect on the gut-brain axis.
There are several ways you can enhance your gut health. They include:
Supporting your gut bacteria
The microbiome is an essential part of the gut - without actually being part of it. It is made up of bacteria that we have a symbiotic relationship with.
They perform functions for us, such as making neurotransmitters, training the immune system and digesting food7 and, in return, we provide them with food in the form of fibre (also known as prebiotics) from our diet.
In order to keep the microbiome thriving, you need to feed it well.8
Vegetables, beans and whole grains all have good amounts of fibre in them.
As well as prebiotics, we can also take probiotics either as ready-made products or from fermented foods.
Fermentation produces lactic acid bacteria in foods, like yoghurt and kefir, which populates the gut when eaten and may have a positive effect on metabolism.9
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.10
Results showed that those in the bacteria yoghurt group experienced changes in the part of the brain that processes emotions linked to visual stimuli, with some decrease in activity, suggesting a reduction in anxiety.
It’s believed that the research could one day lead to so-called psychobiotics – medicines based on bacteria – being used as treatments for mood disorders, including depression.11
Spending time outdoors
To get a broad range of bacteria populating your gut, you need to come into contact with a lot of different environments.
There’s a big difference between the bacteria that live in cities compared to those that live in farms with livestock, for instance.
Taking a trip to the countryside – as well as being a nice day out- can actually improve our risk of allergies because exposure to this kind of bacteria helps to train our immune systems to tolerate non-harmful bacteria and substances.12
Being physically active
Physical activity can improve conditions in the gut so that anti-inflammatory bacteria can thrive.13
Exercise can even effect the types of bacteria that thrive in your intestine.
Especially if you can combine it with getting into a different environment – running in a woods versus running on a treadmill, for example.14
It can also prevent constipation by making sure the muscles in the gut keep contracting and moving food through.15
Minimising stress levels
Early research on animals has found that stress can impact the natural make-up of gut microbiota, and that it can be affected by bad bacteria (enteric pathogens).16
In one 2004 study in particular, germ-free mice showed an upregulated hormonal response to stress brought on by being physical restrained.
This implied that the microbiota influences the neuroendocrine hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, which is also referred to as the central stress response system.
Several years later, in 2011, several experimental findings on mice confirmed that a lack of conventional microbiota affects behaviour, gene expression in the brain and nervous system development.
- We can fundamentally influence how our gut-brain axis operates
- This includes prescribing treatments that communicate with both ‘brains’
- Improved gut health can also be beneficial for boosting the gut-brain axis
A final few words about the gut-brain axis
Believe it or not, our brain and gut are connected, even if they happen to be at completely different ends of our body.
Research has found, and continues to find, that the brain does directly affect our stomach and intestines.
More specifically, the brain and gastrointestinal system are intimately linked, with both signalling to each other via a connection that can go both ways.
Managing your stress levels and taking good care of your gut, particularly your gut bacteria, has been proven to play an instrumental role in improving the gut-brain axis.
What’s more, it can be easily achieved by implementing everyday measures that are easy to embrace and follow, such as taking probiotics, eating a healthy, balanced diet, spending time outdoors and taking part in regular exercise.
The gut-brain axis is a silent force to be reckoned with.
If you feel you are experiencing symptoms caused by the relationship between your brain and gut, speak to your GP about it in the first instance.
Dr Megan Rossi: Eat more for good gut health
Dr Megan Rossi, known as the Gut Health Doctor, is one of the leading experts in the world when it comes to gut health. In this information-packed episode Megan discusses:
- Why we should all be eating more plant-based foods for better gut health.
- why restrictive diets can be bad for our gut health.
- Recipe inspiration for sneaking and squeezing more plants into our diets.
Dr Megan Rossi: Eat more for good gut health
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
Last updated: 10 June 2022
- C Konturek, Peter & Brzozowski, Thomas & Konturek, S.J.. (2011). Stress and the gut: Pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. Journal of physiology and pharmacology : an official journal of the Polish Physiological Society. 62. 591-9.
- Hannibal KE, Bishop MD. Chronic stress, cortisol dysfunction, and pain: a psych neuroendocrine rationale for stress management in pain rehabilitation. Phys Ther. 2014;94(12):1816-1825. doi:10.2522/ptj.20130597
- Karl JP, Hatch AM, Arcidiacono SM, et al. Effects of Psychological, Environmental and Physical Stressors on the Gut Microbiota. Front Microbiol. 2018;9:2013. Published 2018 Sep 11. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2018.02013
- Lee C, Doo E, Choi JM, Jang S, Ryu H, Lee JY, Oh JH, Park JH, Kim YS, BARGOKSONAM. The Increased Level of Depression and Anxiety in Irritable Bowel Syndrome Patients Compared with Healthy Controls: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Neurogastroenterol Motil 2017;23:349-362.
- Jandhyala SM, Talukdar R, Subramanyam C, Vuyyuru H, Sasikala M, Nageshwar Reddy D. Role of the normal gut microbiota. World J Gastroenterol. 2015;21(29):8787-8803. doi:10.3748/wjg.v21.i29.8787
- Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome Lawrence A. David et al Nature volume 505, pages 559–563 (23 January 2014) doi:10.1038/nature12820
- Fermented kimchi reduces body weight and improves metabolic parameters in overweight and obese patients. Nutr Res. 2011 Jun;31(6):436-43. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2011.05.011. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21745625
- 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
- Microbial ‘Old Friends’, immunoregulation and stress resilience. Graham A. W. Rook*1, Christopher A. Lowry2 and Charles L. Raison3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3868387/pdf/eot004.pdf
- Monda V, Villano I, Messina A, et al. Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. 2017;2017:3831972. doi:10.1155/2017/3831972.
- Zhou D., Zhang H., Bai Z., Zhang A., Bai F., Luo X., et al. (2015). Exposure to soil, house dust, and decaying plants increases gut microbial diversity and decreases serum IgE levels in BALB/c mice. Environ. Microbiol
- Lawrence Leung, MBBChir, FRACGP, FRCGP, Taylor Riutta, MD, Jyoti Kotecha, MPA, MRSC and Walter Rosser, MD, MRCGP, FCFP Chronic Constipation: An Evidence-Based Review. J Am Board Fam Med July-August 2011 vol. 24 no. 4 436-451