It may surprise you to know that there is a system in your body so complex that it contains almost 500 million neurons, linked to your brain. Would you ever guess that it is your gastrointestinal (GI) system, otherwise known as your gut? To help shed some light on the importance of gut health for the whole body, we talked to Jagrati Mathur, MD, a gastroenterologist with Dignity Health Medical Group — Saint Francis/St. Mary’s.
The Brain-Gut Connection
The gut is often called the "second brain" because it contains an extensive network of neurons, also known as the enteric nervous system — which is similar to the neurons and neurotransmitters (little messengers) found in the brain. The relationship between the gut and the brain is bi-directional, meaning that the brain can affect the gut, and vice versa. This connection is due to a very complex network of nerves, which line the gut and release neurotransmitters and support bacteria that help regulate brain function.
"That feeling when you get 'butterflies in your stomach' is a result of the brain-gut connection,” said Dr. Mathur.
Being in a stressful situation can either speed up or slow down your GI function and can cause nausea, diarrhea, severe abdominal pain or cramping, and other GI symptoms. It can be beneficial for people experiencing these GI symptoms to focus on relaxation techniques and mental health to help relieve their symptoms.
The reverse is also true. Our gut affects our brain functions. People who have a functional gastrointestinal disease, meaning there is not an organic cause for their GI symptoms like inflammation, ulcers, tumors, etc., can experience a heightened pain response, which can cause stress and anxiety.
"Our everyday emotions are definitely influenced by the nerves in our gut through a complex connection between the nervous system, hormones and the immune system," said Dr. Mathur.
How to Take Care of Your Gut
Eat Gut-Healthy Foods. Foods rich in fiber such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables are great for your overall health, including your gut. It is also important to incorporate foods into your diet that have natural probiotics such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and other fermented foods (foods that are altered by bacteria).
“I always tell patients that natural probiotics in foods are the best. Always talk to your doctor before adding probiotics to your routine,” said Dr. Mathur. “Overall, we know that prebiotics (foods that promote good bacteria) and probiotics (good bacteria) encourage a healthy gut.”
Equally as important, is avoiding substances and foods that can be harmful to your gut. Smoking, alcohol, caffeine, processed foods high in refined sugar, and a high-fat diet increase bacteria associated with gut inflammation and should be avoided to maintain a healthy gut.
Exercise. Recent studies show that exercising promotes healthy bacteria which repair the gut lining and reduce gut inflammation — that's important for a happy, healthy gut. Something as simple as setting a timer on your phone to remind you to get up and stretch periodically throughout your day can make a difference.
Manage Stress. Managing stress is often easier said than done, but did you know your stress could be affecting your gut and vice versa? Yoga, acupuncture, having a pet, journaling, meditating, exercising and sleeping at least 6-7 hours each night have all been proven to decrease stress levels and therefore promote a healthy gut.
Stay Hydrated. Drinking plenty of water is important to gut health. Just like healthy eating, staying hydrated helps balance good bacteria in the gut. It is recommended to drink at least 6 to 8 glasses of water each day to stay sufficiently hydrated.
Know the Symptoms
Many people experience symptoms like abdominal bloating, an increase in flatulence, changes in bowel habits, constipation or diarrhea and abdominal pain for many years without realizing that these may be symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms let your doctor know and they can evaluate and treat these symptoms.
Make sure to bring up any gut related concerns or questions you have during your regular doctor visits. A healthy gut promotes a healthy immune system, brain health, mood, sleep, and even heart health. Making these simple lifestyle changes to benefit your gut can improve your quality of life and overall well-being.