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The brain-gut connection

New research is uncovering more information about the relationship between our guts and our brains.

How your digestive system can impact your mental health

It’s long been recognised that our emotions could be related to the way our digestive system functions. If you think back to any significant periods of stress during your life, it’s possible you also experienced an upset stomach at the same time. Why is this? Our brain appears to share a fascinating connection with our gut — often to referred to as the brain-gut axis.

Understanding the connection between the gut and brain starts by understanding the way our digestive system operates.

The digestive tract is our body’s amazingly complex way of processing food and turning it into nutrients. It contains hundreds of millions of neurons–more than any other organ in the body, with the exception of the brain. These nerve cells make up the enteric nervous system, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘second brain’. According to IBS Clinic, the digestive tract and brain develop from closely related parts of the embryo, and as a result they communicate extensively via these nerve endings.

How do the ‘two brains’ impact one another?

While studies have acknowledged for some time that symptoms of mental health conditions such as anxiety or stress can compound digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), researchers are increasingly observing that the connection may work the other way as well – with digestive issues also worsening mental health conditions. One study conducted in Sydney in 2012 supported this relationship, finding that around half of the study participants who had chronic gut issues suffered from anxiety first, while the other half had gut problems prior to mental health issues arising.

Commenting on the connection, Medibank Medical Director, Dr Kevin Cheng says:

“Approximately 1 in 5 Aussies are affected by IBS, and studies have shown that 70% to 90% of those who seek treatment for IBS are also affected by psychological disorders. While it’s clear that there’s a strong connection between the gut and the brain, it’s essential we continue to study the nature of the connection in order the better understand this complex relationship.”

“Improving our understanding of this could go a long way in helping people manage their health — particularly amongst patients experiencing a concurrent gut conditions such as IBS and mental health issues such as anxiety.”

If you suffer from gut or mental health issues–or both–chat through your symptoms with GP so you can find the most appropriate course of treatment to suit your needs.

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