While most people have now, from one source or another, heard about the importance of “gut health”, very few individuals actually understand just how important your gut is to your overall well-being, which includes your mental and emotional health – not just physical. Not only does the gut communicate with your brain, but your brain communicates with your gut, inextricably linking the two since before you were born. That means, whatever happens in your brain impacts your gut and vice versa.
More than just your “second brain”, your gut is, arguably, your first brain. According to Dr. Emeran Mayer, because your “gut-based nervous system developed hundreds of millions of years before the human brain”, tending to its health isn’t just a luxury or a good idea – it’s mandatory if you want to live your best life.
This unique connection between your gut and your brain is sometimes referred to as “gut connectome”, which is just another way to explain how your brain and gut communicate throughout your body. Some of these channels of communication, or the gut connectome, include:
• Your immune system, specifically inflammation
• Your endocrine system, specifically gut-produced hormones
• Your nervous system, specifically the two branches that form the vagus nerve
What does all of this mean?
The health of your gut directly translates to how you feel and think. To start to understand this, you can look at a simple example: If you have inflammation in your gut (which happens after you eat a high-fat meal), you’re likely to feel fatigued or nauseous. On the other hand, if you allow the gut to stay empty for an extended amount of time, you begin to feel hungry, craving food. And, of course, if you find a happy medium and eat healthy food that gives your body the nutrition it needs, then you actually feel better mentally, experiencing less stress and anxiety.
This connection, as mentioned previously, isn’t a one-way street. That means, your brain also sends signals to your gut, which is why your mental and emotional states directly influence your gut and its health. Another easy example of this connection is the sensation of your stomach feel cramped or knotted when you’re angry. It isn’t, however, until you start paying attention to this connection that you really begin to notice how common – and influential – the gut-brain really is.
Your gut, which is the site of more than 150 million nerve cells, is always communicating with your body and brain, specifically the 70 trillion microorganisms that call our human bodies home. Using the vagus nerve as its direct line to the brain, the gut has more control over us than we think, telling our bodies how to feel and our minds how to think, understand, and even react. Because of this intimate connection, the health of your gut plays an essential role in dozens of important functions for your body. That means, when your gut isn’t healthy, you’re vulnerable to a myriad of serious health issues, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, allergies, autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and more.
As you start to learn more about how the gut-brain works, you begin to understand that, in order to feel your best, you really have to tend to so much more than just your physical body, turning in to start fine-tuning how your gut functions.
In the second and third part of this series, we will explore how stress effects your brain chemistry and the impacts that has on your gut, as well as the role your gut-brain plays in depression and anxiety.