4 Ways Your Gut Is Affecting Your Brain, According to Doctors


If you've ever heard the expression "trust your gut" or have felt "butterflies in your stomach," then you're aware that there's a long-established link between your gut and your brain. But it turns out that the two are even more intimately connected than you might think. Gastrointestinal (GI) tract issues can manifest in your mood, and poor gut health has been linked to elevated stress, burnout, and anxiety. Read on to learn how your gut health could be affecting your brain—and what to do about it.

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Your gut can be the root of your stress and anxiety.

Your gut is one of the major gateways to your brain. It absorbs nutrients from the foods you eat, affecting how your brain works. The back-and-forth communication between your brain and gut occurs via the vagus nerve pathway, which plays a critical role in your body's ability to "rest and digest." When harmful bacteria proliferate in your gut, it can cause inflammation of the vagus nerve and cause your cortisol levels to rise—leading to increased stress and anxiety.

This means your food choices may be the root of your stress and anxiety. Ultra-processed foods high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fat (such as cookies, processed meats, sweets, sodas, pastries, white bread, and pasta) offer minimal nutritional value. These foods impair gut function and spike cortisol levels. Conversely, whole foods from plant sources are packed with nutrition and beneficial gut bacteria that can help combat inflammation and reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and burnout.

Your gut can be behind brain fog.

When your mind persistently feels slow and foggy, it's normal to assume you'd see a neurologist to address your issues. But impaired gut health may be the underlying cause of your mental fatigue. A study published in Annals of Gastroenterology in 2015 found that a healthy gut is imperative for proper cognitive function. Common GI conditions that can result in a lack of mental clarity include celiac disease, Crohn's disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

"Gut health can cause brain fog, fainting, and headaches," explains Eddie L. Copelin II, MD, MHA, a gastroenterologist at the Digestive Disease Medicine of Central New York. "The gut microbiome helps communication between the body's external and internal environments. Disturbance in the balance of the microbiome, as seen in medical conditions such as SIBO, can lead to bloating, fainting, brain fog, and headaches due to malabsorption of nutrients and dehydration from diarrhea."

Your gut impacts your mental health.

If you're feeling blue, your gut health could be to blame. A 2020 study published in Cureus showed a strong connection between the gut microbiome and mental well-being. Researchers concluded that gut health could significantly impact stress, anxiety, depression, and cognition. In addition, gut microbes affect how you think and how the gut-brain axis functions in the "management of several mental health issues and disorders."

According to the National Institutes of Health, gastroparesis (also called delayed gastric emptying) is a digestive condition that can negatively affect your mental health. Gastroparesis slows or stops food movement from your stomach to your small intestine, impacting the gut-brain connection. "Gastroparesis gives the sensation of feeling full, and in return, the individual will inadvertently not want to eat and may lose weight," Copelin says. "Psychological conditions may affect digestion, [causing] decreased appetite from slow gut motility. These conditions include depression [and poor mental health]."

Physical symptoms of gastroparesis include nausea, vomiting, early or prolonged fullness, belching, bloating, and abdominal pain. If you're experiencing these symptoms along with poor mental health, consult a gastroenterologist.

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Your gut can trigger cognitive decline.

Chronic gut inflammation can lead to neuroinflammation (inflammation of the brain) and trigger neurodegenerative diseases, according to a 2019 article in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience . "Gut function plays a role in Alzheimer's, dementia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, Parkinson's, and schizophrenia through trillions of microbial cells that live in our intestinal wall," explains Liudmila Schafer, MD, FACP, a medical oncologist and the founder of The Doctor Connect. "These microbial cells release chemicals that affect the immune system, which influences the nervous system."

If you're concerned about your gut health and how it might be affecting your brain function and mental well-being, visit a gastroenterologist who can help get to the root of your underlying condition.

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