Understanding Gut Health and How it Can Affect Your Mood

Gut Health woman holding stomach image - Chambers Center for Well-Being, Morristown, NJ

“I feel sick to my stomach.” It’s something a lot of us say when we face very stressful situations. It can happen when you’re preparing for a job interview, speaking in front of a large crowd, or getting ready to have a tough conversation with a friend.

But does stress actually cause us to feel gut symptoms?

The simple answer: yes. “A lot of people refer to our gut as our ‘second brain,’ and the reason is because of something we in medicine call the gut-brain axis,” says Bianca Chiara, MD, a functional medicine specialist with Atlantic Health System’s Chambers Center for Well-Being.

How the Gut-Brain Connection Works

To understand the gut-brain connection, think about a four-lane highway with cars constantly whizzing by in either direction. In this case, the “highway” is the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the gut. The “cars” are signals that the brain and gut send to one another constantly through the vagus nerve.

What are those signals? “They’re mood-altering neurotransmitters,” Dr. Chiara says. “The brain, for example, regulates the production of cortisol—the stress hormone, while the gut is where the body produces serotonin, which is connected to relaxation.”

When the gut-brain connection misfunctions, it can cause health problems. An unhealthy gut, for example, can lead to reduced mental wellness in the same way that intense mental stress can trigger an upset stomach and other gut problems. “There is a very high correlation between patients with chronic gastrointestinal (GI) issues and mood issues,” Dr. Chiara explains. “Many GI issues affect quality of life, and that affects mood as well.”

Achieving Gut-Brain Balance

GI concerns typically fall into one of two buckets:

  • Acute: Those that develop quickly and act for a short period of time, such as diarrhea or lactose intolerance.
  • Chronic: Those that remain with a person for a longer period of time. These can include ongoing constipation, diarrhea, loose stool, bloating, gas, or acid reflux.

A medical doctor is your go-to for acute GI conditions. For chronic conditions, however, a functional medicine doctor can also provide a variety of tests and treatments that can help balance the gut and soothe the mind.

The key to improving gut health is balancing the gut microbiome. “Your microbiome contains trillions of microorganisms,” Dr. Chiara says. “The good ones help us digest food and regulate our immune system. The bad ones can lead to many issues, including GI symptoms and even neuroinflammation.”

A functional medicine doctor seeks to find the root cause of gut imbalance through a variety of unique and detailed tests, including:

  • Stool testing to identify both beneficial and harmful microorganisms within the gut. Stool testing can also search for markers of inflammation and metabolic conditions in the gut microbiome.
  • Breath testing to identify conditions such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), an overload of intestinal bacteria that can cause chronic conditions like diarrhea and malabsorption.
  • Blood testing to assess the permeability of gut marketers and help determine whether a patient is experiencing a food allergy or an immunological food reactivity.
  • Saliva and urine testing to assess the status of a person’s stress hormones, including their adrenal and cortisol levels.

Once the root cause of GI issues is determined, a functional medicine doctor may prescribe one or several types of treatments to address them:

  • Lifestyle changes such as taking steps to improve sleep and reduce stress. These may include massage, acupuncture, nutrition, or health support, all of which are offered at the Chambers Center.
  • Digestive enzymes, including specific probiotics, prebiotics, and supplements that can help improve how the gut absorbs nutrients.
  • Antimicrobial (herbal-based) medicines targeted at eliminating harmful bacteria and fungus in the gut.
  • Antibiotic medications that fight bacterial infections.

“Many times, when someone improves a chronic GI issue, their mood improves, too,” Dr. Chiara says. “In functional medicine, we use both traditional and adjunct therapies and tailor our treatments to each individual so we can help them get better faster.”

Visit the Chambers Center for Well-Being for Better Gut Health

Looking to achieve better gut health to improve your mood and overall wellness? Schedule a functional medicine appointment with us today! We’re here to help you find the root cause of an illness and help you optimize your health.