Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach or experienced a gut-wrenching feeling? These sensations describe some of the ways that we experience the cross-talk between the brain and the gut, which is commonly referred to as the gut-brain axis. 

This bidirectional relationship has recently become a hot topic, but it is not a new idea. Physiologist Ivan Pavlov made the first connection between these two systems over 100 years ago when he observed that gastric and pancreatic secretions in dogs started with the anticipation of being fed, before actually receiving any food. Pavlov also demonstrated that sounds associated with being fed made dogs salivate. The term “classical conditioning” may ring a bell.

A somewhat newer idea that has expanded the concept of the gut-brain axis is the connection between the brain and the community of “good” bacteria in the gut, termed the microbiota-gut-brain axis. The majority of recent scientific studies have focused on how the gut and the good bacteria it contains influence brain function, or how this could be exploited to find new treatments for brain disorders. For instance, there have been studies suggesting that probiotics, which alter the composition of gut bacteria, could be useful in the treatment of stress-related conditions such as anxiety and depression.  

Research has focused on how the gut and the good bacteria it contains influence brain function, but the brain can also affect the gut.

However, recently, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have refocused the conversation around the gut-brain axis, examining how the brain influences the gut. A study published in May pinpointed specific areas of the brain from which signals originate that communicate with the stomach, affecting its function. And, interestingly, these brain areas are those involved with emotional control, interoception (a sense of what is going on inside your body), and action.

These findings could have important implications for the treatment of troublesome gut disorders, providing rationale for brain-based therapies. This study may also provide a biological explanation for stress-induced stomach ulcers resulting from brain signals capable of altering the gut. Unfortunately, this is especially relevant right now as, historically, stress due to high unemployment rates has been associated with an increase in deaths due to stomach ulcers

This study reminds us that the body and mind are not distinct from one another, but a complex network of signals connecting them. And we should remember that maintaining a healthy lifestyle involves taking care of both! So, let’s all take some deep, calming breaths, a (socially distant) walk on the beach, or maybe find time for some living room yoga tonight.