If you’re struggling with cognitive issues, your first instinct is probably not to think about your gut health. However, as more scientific research unfolds, experts are finding that your digestion could play a major role in determining how well your brain functions.
Scientists refer to this as the “gut-brain” connection, or “gut-brain axis.” While this a cutting-edge area of study, the research coming forward shows a connection between the two that is more complex and amazing than we ever realized. In this brief article, we’ll look at how the two are connected and what you can do to maintain your gut health for optimal brain function.
How Are The Gut and Brain Connected?
Did you know that the connection between the gut and the brain is so strong that many experts now refer to your digestive tract as the ‘second brain.’ This term came about because scientists have discovered a complex network of neurons that control your entire digestive tract. This network, called the enteric nervous system, is remarkable because it doesn’t require the brain at all to function (source.)
We generally assume that the brain sends signals throughout the body, and this is true. Through the vagus nerve, which runs along your spine, the brain is able to communicate to our major organs (source.) What’s amazing, however, is that scientists are now learning that the gut also sends signals back to the brain. Around 80-90% of the nerve fibers in the enteric nervous system are traveling from the gut to the brain. What that means is that our digestive tract may be involved in our cognitive processes to an extent we’ve never considered before.
This connection also explains to some extent why we ‘feel’ things in our gut. For example, stress inhibits signals sent through our vagus nerve and can cause gastro-intestinal problems. The gut-brain connection is why emotions can sometimes cause us an upset stomach. In essence, they are tied through complicated wiring in our nervous system.
The Neurotransmitter Connection
You’ve probably heard the term neurotransmitters before, but likely only in reference to the brain. There’s a reason for that: neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that travel between nerve cells. They affect the way your brain functions and play a huge role in your emotions.
What many people don’t know, however, is that a major percentage of neurotransmitters are manufactured in your gut. How much are we talking? It’s estimated that 90% of your serotonin is located in the gut (source.) You may know serotonin as one of your ‘feel-good neurochemicals.’ It’s involved in important functions such as sleep, mood, digestion, blood-clotting and many others. It’s also believed that around 50% of your dopamine is created in the gut. This is another one of your ‘happy’ chemicals, and it is strongly tied to your sense of pleasure, motivation and reward-seeking behavior (source.) Both of these neurotransmitters are tremendously important for your brain function as well as your emotional wellness. Researchers are only scratching the surface of how involved the gut is in the creation and balance of these important chemicals.
Now that you can see how connected the gut is to the brain, you can probably imagine how gut issues might negatively impact the brain’s function. If the bacteria in your gut is out of balance, for instance, it could contribute to mood imbalance, attention/concentration problems, or memory issues. In the future, maintaining gut health could become an important part of cognitive wellness. While we remain in the early stages of understanding the gut/brain connection, we do see signs that caring for the gut could have major benefits for our overall health and quality of life.