The Gut-brain axis and your mental health
The connection between our gut and our brain has been an increasing topic of discussion in recent years. It's called the gut-brain axis, and it's a complex communication system that links the gastrointestinal tract to the central nervous system.
This gut-brain axis plays a crucial role in maintaining our physical and mental health.
In this article I want to explore how the gut-brain axis works, and how it can impact mental health and more specifically, eating disorders.
WHAT IS THE GUT-BRAIN AXIS?
The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication network between the gut and the brain. It involves a complex system of neurons, hormones, and microbiota that work together to regulate digestive functions and emotions. The gut-brain axis begins in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, where millions of neurons form the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is often referred to as the "second brain" because it can function independently of the central nervous system (CNS).
The gut-brain axis involves a complex system of neurons, hormones, and microbiota that work together to regulate digestive functions and emotions.
The ENS communicates with the CNS through the vagus nerve, a long nerve that extends from the brainstem to the abdomen.
The vagus nerve is responsible for transmitting information about gut functions, such as hunger, satiety, and digestion, to the brain (you can see how this can be tied in to disordered eating). The brain, in turn, sends signals to the gut to regulate its functions. These signals can impact our mood, behaviour, and mental health.
THE IMPACT OF THE GUT-BRAIN AXIS ON MENTAL HEALTH
The gut-brain axis plays a crucial role in maintaining our mental health. Studies have shown that gut microbiota can influence our brain function and behaviour by producing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. These neurotransmitters are essential for regulating mood, anxiety, and stress. Imbalances in gut microbiota can lead to mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.
Studies have shown that gut microbiota can influence our brain function and behaviour by producing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. These neurotransmitters are essential for regulating mood, anxiety, and stress.
Research has also shown that the gut-brain axis plays a role in the development of eating disorders.
Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that are characterized by abnormal eating habits and behaviours. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder are the most common types of eating disorders. These disorders can have serious physical and psychological consequences and can be life-threatening.
THE GUT -BRAIN AXIS AND EATING DISORDERS
Eating disorders are often associated with negative body image, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and a distorted perception of body weight and shape. The gut-brain axis can impact these factors and contribute to the development and maintenance of eating disorders.
For example, studies have shown that gut microbiota can influence appetite and food cravings. An imbalance in gut microbiota can lead to increased cravings for high-fat and high-sugar foods, which can contribute to weight fluctuations and the development of disordered eating.
The gut-brain axis can also impact the regulation of hormones that control appetite, such as leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is a hormone that signals the brain to reduce appetite and increase energy expenditure. Ghrelin is a hormone that signals the brain to increase appetite and reduce energy expenditure. Imbalances in these hormones can lead to significant weight loss or weight gain. Imbalance of these hormones have also been associated with eating disorders and mood disorders.
The gut-brain axis can also impact the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which regulates
mood and appetite. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to appetite issues and eating disorders. This may include overeating, not eating enough, or alternating between the two. Additionally, depression itself (linked to low levels of serotonin) can result in problems with appetite,. including increased food cravings and bingeing or decreased or lost appetite which can trigger eating disorders or worsen pre-existing conditions.
THE GUT-BRAIN AXIS AND RECOVERY
The gut-brain axis can also play a role in the recovery from eating disorders.
Eating disorders can disrupt the balance of gut microbiota, leading to digestive problems and malnutrition. Restoring the balance of gut microbiota through a balanced diet and probiotic supplements can improve digestive function and overall health.
Additionally, talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy can help individuals with eating disorders develop healthy coping mechanisms and improve their mental health.
These therapies can also impact the gut-brain axis by reducing stress and anxiety. When we engage in talking therapy, we can learn strategies to manage thoughts and emotions, which can reduce the activation of the stress response in the body.
Reducing stress and anxiety through talking therapy can have a positive impact on the gut-brain axis by:
Reducing inflammation: Chronic stress and anxiety can cause inflammation in the gut, which can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea, and constipation. By reducing stress and anxiety, talking therapy can help to reduce inflammation in the gut.
Improving gut motility: Stress and anxiety can also impact gut motility, which can contribute to GI symptoms. Talking therapy can help us to manage stress and anxiety, which can improve gut motility and reduce GI symptoms.
Enhancing the gut microbiome: Stress and anxiety have been shown to alter the composition of the gut microbiome, which can impact overall gut health. Talking therapy can help to reduce stress and anxiety, which can promote a healthy gut microbiome.
Overall, reducing stress and anxiety through talking therapy can have a positive impact on the gut-brain axis by reducing inflammation, improving gut motility, and enhancing the gut microbiome.