While both are crucial to our overall health, any connection between brain health and gut health would be seemingly coincidental to most of us. To be sure, both the brain and gut serve important functions in our bodies, although since one handles the digestion and the other handles our thinking, motor skills, and senses, the two areas would appear to have no direct link.
However, most of us have experienced the sensation of having “butterflies in your stomach,” when nervous, or of feeling “sick to our stomach” out of fear or anxiety, both of which show a basic connection between the two areas.
But, the connection between mind and gut goes even deeper than that.
In fact, there is such mounting evidence of the connection between the brain and gut that many scientists are now considering the gut to be something of a “second brain.”
Your Second Brain
Many of us have experienced gastrointestinal (GI) problems when under heavy stress or anxiety, which we typically pass off as having a nervous stomach. Naturally, this shows a basic connection between mind and gut, though seemingly a psychosomatic one.
However, when we arrive at a conclusion based on a “gut feeling,” there may be more truth to the notion that we can “think” with our gut than we realize. This is because our bodies are likely sending signals between our central nervous system and our “second brain,” AKA the nervous system of our digestive tract.
Dubbed the “enteric nervous system,” or ENS, this second brain is made up of two thin layers lining the entire digestive tract and is composed of over 100-million nerve cells. The nerve cells in the ENS rely on the same neurotransmitters as does your central nervous system, which bolsters the idea of it being a second brain.
According to Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, the main role of the ENS is in “…controlling digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient absorption to elimination.” (1)
This points to a new understanding of the connection between our central nervous system—AKA our brain and spinal cord – and our gut health.
Connecting Our Two Brains
Even more interesting perhaps than the idea of there being a second brain in our digestive tract is the connection this brain has with our central nervous system—something which also helps explain the phenomena of having a nervous stomach when mentally stressed.
It seems that together, our “two brains” work to perform critical functions in controlling certain diseases, illnesses, and general health. This also makes the possibility of healing some diseases or illnesses a two-way endeavor, since by working together, the gut may be able to heal the brain, and vice-versa. (2)
This also shows a connection between our poor digestive health, such as caused by Candida (yeast) overgrowth, low levels of essential gut bacteria, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or leaky gut, and our mental health.
Healing the Gut Can Heal the Mind
Not only can an unhealthy gut cause poor skin health, weight gain, and low energy, it may also lead to mental illness, such as may be the case with Candida overgrowth.
For those unfamiliar, Candida is a yeast-like fungus which occurs naturally in our digestive systems, although for most of us, healthy gut bacteria keep its numbers in check. But, for those who are overprescribed antibiotics, have a poor diet, are diabetic, or have a weakened immune system, a toxic overgrowth may occur. This can lead to a burning or itching rash, low energy, and brain fog, as well as other unpleasant and potentially dangerous health conditions. (3)
And, according to a study performed by Johns Hopkins researchers, a group of men with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia more commonly showed overgrowth of Candida than those who did not. They also found that women who suffered bipolar disorder or schizophrenia along with Candida overgrowth did worse on memory tests than did women with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but with no Candida overgrowth.
Research does point to a connection between mental health and digestive health. (4)
In another study performed by Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Digestive Diseases, Kirsten Tillisch, and her colleagues at UCLA, a group of forty women were separated based upon their composition of gut bacteria. In one group of thirty-three, more of a type of bacteria known as Bacteroides was noted, while the remaining group had higher levels of a gut bacteria called Prevotella.
When viewing emotionally charged images while under an fMRI brain scan, the high Prevotella group showed more connectivity between regions of the brain responsible for emotional, attentional, and sensory processing. They also showed more anxiety, irritability, and distress when looking at pictures with negative emotional connotation than did the Bacteroides group. (5)
These findings not only help show us the connection between digestive health, mental health, and our moods, but of the importance of maintaining a healthy gut and balance of essential bacteria.
Natural Solutions for Improved Gut Health
If you suffer from poor digestive health, you need to improve it—not only for the sake of your physical well-being, but mental, as well. Fortunately, reversing the effects of low levels of beneficial gut bacteria, leaky gut syndrome, IBS, Candida overgrowth and other ailments is possible, though it takes some discipline and dietary changes to accomplish this.
For instance, if you are experiencing the ill effects of Candida overgrowth, you need to stop feeding the offending substance. Since Candida is a form of “opportunistic pathogenic yeast,” by continuing to provide it with its preferred foods such as yeast, grains, and simple sugars, you will only be helping its continued growth.
Likewise, if Candida’s main adversary in the gut—Lactobacillus Acidophilus—is not adequately represented, Candida essentially has no enemy, and is instead free to grow. This can lead to symptoms of leaky gut syndrome, acid reflux disease, and IBS, along with other health problems, not the least of which are symptoms of depression and brain fog.
However, a yeast-free or Candida-free diet which eliminates the foods that Candida loves, such as simple sugars, yeast, dairy, and grains, can be used to control the influx of Candida. This is known of as the Candida diet or yeast-free diet, and its main function is to starve the yeast by eliminating its nourishment. By adding probiotic foods or supplements, you will also do the equivalent of “sending in the troops,” which in this case is beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus. (6)
Examples of the types of probiotics foods which contain high levels of beneficial bacteria are:
- Coconut or almond milk yogurt
- Water kefir
And, just as your diet should exclude foods which fuel Candida growth, it should also include foods which promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, which need fiber—AKA prebiotics—to grow. By adding sources of soluble and insoluble fiber to your diet, you can help to promote the healthiest populations of gut flora possible to improve probiotics benefits. (7)
Some examples of good sources of prebiotic fiber include:
- Chia seeds
- Green, leafy vegetables
- Low glycemic fruits, such as cherries or grapefruit
In all, following the Candida diet can help you have better mental clarity, improved digestive health, improved outlook, and less risk of chronic disease.
Your gut health has more to do with your mental well-being than you may realize, and the connection between your digestive tract and central nervous system can essentially be thought of as having “two brains thinking as one.” This is because the ENS and central nervous system are similar not only in their capacity to control various bodily functions, but in their direct communications with one another.
By taking measures such as adding probiotic-rich foods, probiotic supplements, and adequate fiber to your diet while eliminating yeast, wheat, and simple sugars, you can not only improve your digestive health, but your mental health and well-being, as well.
In short, with a little discipline and care, you can be on your way to living a better, happier, and healthier life!