Have you ever made a decision using your gut instinct? Felt butterflies in your stomach when you’re anxious? Lost your appetite after hearing or seeing something disturbing? Not had the stomach to do something difficult?
Those are idioms we use every day, but they’re based in science—old science. For over a century, researchers have theorized that there’s a connection between our brains and our digestive system. It’s called the gut-brain axis, or the gut-brain connection.
What Is the Gut-Brain Connection?
The gut-brain connection describes the neural network that links the brain, the stomach, and the intestines. For decades, scientists fretted over “what comes first” problems. Does the brain talk to the gut, they wondered, or does the gut talk to the brain?
Now, we know that the digestive system and the brain are connected through feedback loops that work in both directions. That means that when you’re nervous, your neurons send that information to your digestive system and potentially trigger an upset stomach. Likewise, when there’s something bothering your intestines, your GI tract sends a message to your brain. This message can make you feel too anxious to stray far from home.
It’s easy to hear these sorts of sayings and assume that the symptoms are psychosomatic. The gut-brain connection proves that they’re not all in your head. These symptoms are real, and so are their corresponding mental health concerns.
While the occasional bout of anxiety over a speech or a first date is normal and expected, many people struggle every day with illnesses rooted in the connection between the brain, the stomach, and the intestines. For these patients, mental and digestive problems are not passing whims that should be dismissed or ignored. It’s not something you “get over” or “push through.” They’re legitimate medical problems that require treatment.
Gut Health Improves Brain Health—and Vice Versa
It’s well-documented that patients with chronic illnesses experience depression at higher rates than the general population. For those battling digestive complaints, like ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety is also quite common.
Research suggests that 40 percent of IBD patients have anxiety, too. This anxiety gets worse when the disease gets worse. And it lingers even when the individual’s gastrointestinal disease goes into remission. And because of the link between the gut and the brain, severe bouts of anxiety can cause bowel disease to worsen.
That’s why gastroenterologists are increasingly treating mental health issues as part of a whole-body approach to improving GI symptoms and diseases. By prescribing medication like SSRIs and benzodiazepines as well as alternative therapies. These alternatives include supplements, exercise, and meditation. Doctors are working with their patients to find combinations of pharmaceutical, alternative and lifestyle treatments and changes that hit the wellness sweet spot.
And guess what? Combining these different types of treatments and therapies is making a noticeable difference in both their patients’ mental health and their digestive health.
The Supplement That Treats the Gut and the Brain? Probiotics
There are numerous factors that affect the digestive system—this, we know. One of these factors is gut flora.
Gut flora, microbiota or bacteria are the organisms that live in your intestines and help to finish the digestive process a well as important other functions. These include immune support, competitive inhibition of pathogens and helping to maintain a balanced microbiome. You are born with trillions of bacteria already in your digestive system.
Sometimes, the population of gut flora in your intestines can be decimated or one type of bacteria can overwhelm another. These can create an imbalance that makes you sick. Research suggests that this could be a contributing factor to some irritable bowel diseases. It can also be caused by something as innocuous as taking a course of antibiotics.
Supplementing your body’s existing microbiota with probiotics can help restore the balance of “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria. When the balance between these types of bacteria is reestablished, your body has one more functioning tool to help you digest food. This extracting from it the essential nutrients you need to live.
While probiotics work solely in the intestines, thanks to the gut-brain connection, the work done there can impact your mental health, too. Scientists have linked probiotic supplements with improved digestion and better management of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.
Related Content: Your Gut Bacteria and You
Should You Try a Probiotic Supplement?
More research is needed but these supplements have, in some cases, been shown to help mental illness in people dealing with gastroenteritis, or inflammation of the stomach and intestines. It also seems to be an effective addition to psychiatric and mood-altering medications used to treat anxiety and depression in chronically ill patients with gastric complaints.
While you should always consult a doctor before changing your treatment plan or your diet, there hasn’t been any sign that probiotics negatively impact patients in any way. With such positive research to date, the potential probiotic supplements have as a part of your treatment plan is immense and encouraging.
So, how should you choose a probiotic?
Wisely. Your options are vast. Though yogurts and fermented food are probiotic sources, they don’t contain as many bacterial colonies or types of bacteria as a dedicated supplement would. They are good options to help maintain a regular intake of probiotics through your diet. They can help improve your gut flora. But if you’re looking for higher probiotic potencies or recovering from recent antibiotic treatment, we recommend taking a probiotic supplement.
A quick Google search or visit to a health foods store will show you that there are many different types of supplements available. Do your due diligence into both the manufacturer and the probiotic species. Research has linked certain types of probiotics to improvement for certain illnesses and symptoms.
If you decide to try probiotics, be sure to give the supplement time to work. You might see changes in days, but more likely, you’ll see changes in weeks, instead. You also need to stick with it. Consistency is important. If you see positive results, keep taking your probiotics! That’s the only way to ensure that they last.
Brenda Kimble is a nutrition coach and wellness blogger from Austin, TX. She is also a mother of 2 daughters and a son. Her life's goal is to encourage herself and others to live a more balanced lifestyle, incorporating healthier habits and exercise practices, which she does by connecting with people in her industry through her writing. When she is not working, she enjoys yoga and spending time with her family.