The Gut-Brain Connection

It is a common saying among naturopathic doctors that the gut is the “second brain.”
This is because the enteric nervous system of the gut can function independent of the central nervous system (the brain). At the same time, these two systems are connected.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with our level of happiness, low levels showing a correlation with clinical depression. Interestingly, the majority of serotonin in the body comes from our gut.

Many pharmaceutical anti-depressants act to increase serotonin levels in the brain. Since up to 95% of serotonin is located in the digestive tract, it makes sense that treating the gut would be as important treating the brain, if not more so.

The connection between the nervous and digestive systems can be observed in countless ways.
How many people get “butterflies in their stomach” when they get nervous? Nervousness is generally an over-stimulation of the nervous system and yet people feel it in their stomach.

Digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are commonly aggravated by stress. Some people with gluten sensitivity or other food sensitivities, not surprisingly, will experience digestive symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, diarrhea or constipation. Others, however, will not have digestion problems at all; instead, they experience fatigue, difficulty concentrating, anxiety or depression.

Research is increasingly showing that children with autism and ADHD improve on a gluten-free, casein-free diet. These are just two of the many neurological disorders that respond favorably to changes in diet. An increased incidence of Crohn’s disease (a digestive disorder) in children with autism is also being observed.

The gut and the brain are so closely related that to establish balance in either one of these systems, both need to be treated. For example, anxiety rarely resolves without treating the digestive system in addition to the central nervous system; conversely, IBS rarely resolves fully without treating the central nervous system as well as the digestive system.

If you struggle with central nervous system symptoms, remember that the problem may not be in your brain at all, but instead could be in your gut. Alternately, digestive system symptoms could be the result of an imbalance in your brain.

—Dr. Colby

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Contact a Berkeley Naturopathic Medical Group doctor for an evaluation of your gut health and its impact on your body.