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Doctor On Demand Blog

What’s going on in your gut has a lot more to do with your mind than you may think. Our doctors explain how the mind and gut are connected, and ways to keep both healthy.

How are the mind and gut connected?

Like many organ systems in our body, our brains and our digestive systems “talk” to each other all the time. They communicate back and forth via “messenger” molecules like hormones, cytokines, serotonin and other neurotransmitters. The gut, for instance, takes in information directly from the outside world via food, water and other substances. These are then “read” by bacteria and receptors that send information back to the brain. This information affects our bodily functions, especially hormones and immune response.

Why is this connection important?

Since the mind-gut connection is bidirectional, an imbalance in one organ system has the potential to profoundly affect the other. There are many examples of this relationship: digestive problems like a stomach virus or diverticulitis lead to the sensation of stomach pain, and psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety can increase the risk of developing conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.

How does this connection affect mental health?

Gut health and function can contribute significantly to cognitive function and mental health disorders of all kinds, including mood and anxiety disorders. Many people in our culture today make statements about a “food hangover” or “sugar high.” The foods we eat can send different signals to our brain.

Can stress cause digestive issues?

Stress leads to higher levels of inflammation in the body, and this can have a major effect on the digestive system. There can be effects on appetite (increased or decreased), cravings for certain kinds of foods (usually carbohydrates and sweets), constipation or loose and more frequent stool, heartburn and cramping.

Four simple tips to promote a healthy mind-gut connection

  1. Manage stress — Take time to focus on your mental wellness and reduce stress. When you feel stress levels start to rise, take a moment to pause and breathe. Build time into your schedule to do things that help you de-stress — meditate, practice yoga or go to the gym, play with the kids or watch a movie with a friend.
  2. Exercise regularly — Stay active for a wealth of mind and gut benefits. Whether you’re walking, dancing, biking or mowing the lawn, exercise increases blood flow and metabolism for smoother digestion and releases endorphins that serve as mood boosters.
  3. Eat healthy — Avoid processed sugars and eat a diet high in fiber with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Remember that the type of foods we eat send signals to our brain.
  4. Sip healthy — Drink plenty of water and limit alcohol intake. Beverages like coffee, tea, soda, sports drinks, juices and other beverages do not have the same effect as water. If you’re looking for some more flavor in your glass, consider adding noncaloric flavors or lemon to your water.