Gut Checking our Mental Health: The Brain-Gut Connection Simplified

“Brain-gut connection,” “mind-body,” “big brain”, “little brain.” These phrases are catchy in popular press articles but get little attention in traditional medical and mental health practices. One simple reason for this disconnect is that the brain-gut pathway spans across a large portion of our body and, in a health system that compartmentalizes the body into one specialty area at a time (how many specialists exist now?), it’s hard to understand conditions in a true “mind-body” approach.

But let’s break it down simply. The brain-gut connection is like a two-lane highway between two destinations: the brain (“the big brain”) and the gut (“the little brain”). The gut is called the “little brain” because its chemical makeup is remarkably similar to our “big” brain, especially regarding neurotransmitter functioning. Traffic flows in both directions (top-down AND bottom-up) and there are a bunch of exits along the GI tract. In situations where there is gut dysfunction (think IBS, leaky gut, fibromyalgia-rooted stomach issues, etc.), the traffic signals going back up to the big brain can cause symptoms of depressed mood, anxiety, brain fog, etc. And, vice versa, problems in the big brain can jam up traffic going down the GI tract and cause nausea, constipation, stomachaches, etc.

The complexity of this relationship often causes confusion amongst medical providers leading to delays in proper diagnosis and treatment. Mental health professionals have been slow to incorporate this knowledge into more sophisticated treatment plans. However, at NRS|Lifespan, our clinical health psychology program integrates this information into a scientifically-informed evaluation and treatment approach. The strategies we use aim to optimize the health of the brain-gut pathway and complement medical treatments to undo the damage of undetected brain-gut conditions.

If interested, call our office at 732-988-3441 to schedule a consultation appointment with our clinical health psychologist.

Lauren Gashlin, PsyD
Licensed Clinical-Health Psychologist