The Connection Between GI Health and Brain Function

We've all heard the expression, "You are what you eat." Never was there a truer statement. Everything we do in life depends upon our digestive system's ability to derive nutrition from what we consume. But how does the digestive system work? What is the brain-gut connection all about, and how does it affect mood, health, and just about everything else?

Dr. Andrew Petersen of Holtorf Medical Group joined us today to explain.

Let’s start by understanding our digestive system and what is involved with our GI tract.
Digestion begins in your saliva which breaks down carbohydrates and fats in your food. The action of chewing starts the production of digestive enzymes in the stomach. Digestive enzymes play a major role in breaking down food into nutrients that can be absorbed by your body. Once food has entered the stomach, various enzymes work to continue digestion. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates are broken down in preparation for absorption.

What is the connection between our gut and our brain?
The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation — all of these feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut.

The brain has a direct effect on the stomach. For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected — so intimately that they should be viewed as one system.

This is especially true in cases where a person experiences gastrointestinal upset with no obvious physical cause. For such functional GI disorders, it is difficult to try to heal a distressed gut without considering the role of stress and emotion.

What are things we can do to improve our GI tract, mood and overall health?
Eat well - The best way to improve your digestion is to eat a healthy, balanced diet, says Dr. Chait. Aim for plant-based, fiber-rich foods—plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grains and bran, and lean sources of protein, such as chicken and fish. Americans generally get well below the recommended amount of daily fiber—38 grams for men under 50; 25 grams for women under 50; and 30 and 21 grams for men and women over 50, respectively.

Tackle your tension - Thanks to the enteric nervous system, the digestive system is very sensitive to emotional and psychological stress. Stress busters like deep breathing, yoga, meditation and massage can play an important role in alleviating GI disorders triggered or exacerbated by tension.

Get moving - Regular exercise keeps you regular. Activity improves motility—the movement of food through the digestive system. A recent Swedish study showed that when people with IBS became more physically active, their symptoms improved.

Supplement with probiotics - These supplements restore the supply of good bacteria in the gut and may help if you have IBS, or anytime you're taking antibiotics. Take a daily dose concurrently with your prescription and for another week afterward. And choose a formula that contains at least 5 billion CFUs (colony-forming units) of these beneficial organisms.

If you want more information about how Holtorf Medical Group can address your symptoms or any of the conditions discussed today, visit or call (801)821-5384 to talk to a patient representative.

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