Stress and your second brain

Here’s how having a healthy gut can improve your body’s reaction to stress and anxiety.

Healthy food

Chances are, you’ve been hearing reports about good bacteria in your gut. Maybe you’ve even jumped on the good-gut bandwagon, filling your grocery cart with probiotic foods like live-bacteria yogurt and sauerkraut to improve digestion.

As researchers learn more about how the body’s systems communicate with one another, they’ve discovered that what’s going on in your gut has profound effects not just on your tummy but on your brain too.

Turns out your gut has its own nervous system that sends signals to your brain — and it receives signals back. Some scientists call this lesser-known nervous system the body’s “second brain.”

How your gut talks to your brain

Your digestive system plays a key role in a wide range of bodily functions, from how well your immune system operates to how easy or hard it is for you to lose weight. It also affects your stress level and your mood. If you’ve ever gotten butterflies when you’re nervous, you’ve felt this in action.

Your gut’s nervous system is known as the enteric nervous system. Millions of nerve cells line the walls of your entire gastrointestinal tract. Researchers have found that tiny healthy microbes in your gut actually transmit brain signals throughout your nervous system.

That system can rally your body to assume the classic fight-or-flight response to stress. This understanding of how the enteric nervous system works has led to a change in the treatment of digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

IBS causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. Some IBS patients are being prescribed antidepressants that calm nerve cells. Relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy might be prescribed to help relieve persistent digestive problems too.

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Why anxiety can hit you in the gut

Your brain-gut connection is a two-way system. A 2021 journal review reports that as many as 60% of people who are anxious and depressed also have intestinal issues. Need proof? When scientists transferred gut microbes from humans with depression into rodents, the rodents showed depression-like states too. This highlighted the link between gut microbes and mental health issues.

Why? Your gut microbes affect the way your body produces neurotransmitters (chemical messengers). And they directly impact the way your central nervous system functions by triggering stress. In studies, people with symptoms of depression had fewer gut microbes than those who weren’t depressed.

One recent study found that when there’s an imbalance in your gut’s microbes, some natural fats vital for brain function disappear. And this can bring on symptoms of depression. So if you’ve ever had a “gut feeling” about something, there’s a good reason for that — and a good reason to pay attention.

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Tips for a healthy gut — and a happy mood

The good news: You can put the brakes on many gut complaints while easing some mental health issues at the same time. Try these tips:

  • Get plenty of exercise and rest. Both habits keep life’s daily stressors in check.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet that’s high in fiber and low in saturated fat and sugar.
  • Add fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and pickles to your diet. These choices deliver good bacteria to your gut.
  • Talk to your doctor about adding probiotic supplements. Research has shown they can help balance your gut bacteria and even improve your mental health. In a 2022 study of people with depression, those who took antidepressant medications plus probiotic supplements saw a bigger improvement in their symptoms than those in the medication-only group.

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Additional sources
Microbiome research: Cureus
Intestinal problems and depression: Frontiers in Nutrition
Probiotic supplements study: Translational Psychiatry