The connection between the brain and gut is a powerful one and it’s almost impossible to neglect the way they affect each other when something is out of balance. When you’re having digestive issues, you’ll most likely experience mood swings, brain fog, fatigue, and even depression. Here is why.
Serotonin and the Gut
Serotonin is crucial for your mood and a variety of different functions in the brain. It’s a powerful chemical or neurotransmitter that acts as a messenger between the nerve cells in your brain and all other cells in your body. It also acts like a hormone and that’s why you might know it as the “happiness hormone,” as the majority of publications refers to it as such.
When serotonin is in its optimal range, it promotes sleep, regulates body temperature, influences sexual behavior and libido, and has a strong impact on your mood and state of mind. When your levels of serotonin dip under their normal values or go overboard, that can result in myriad physical and mental issues.
Did you know that serotonin is mostly produced in your gut? It seems like almost 90% of serotonin can be found in the cells of your gastrointestinal tract and only 10% in your brain. It’s an incredible discovery that led to the large body of research that studies the connection between the brain and the gut. But as great as this is, knowing we can do plenty from our end to influence its levels and find ways to keep them in the optimal range, it also means that any sort of digestive issue or gastrointestinal distress can cause its levels to soar.
What Does IBS Stand For?
IBS, also known as irritable bowel syndrome, is a group of symptoms that negatively affect your gastrointestinal system. The symptoms are usually painful, uncomfortable, and make sitting down for a meal a very unpleasant occurrence.
It’s characterized by abdominal pain, cramps, gas, and bloating that’s hard to attribute as a reaction to a specific food or type of food. And the reason for it is because it’s not related to any special food. IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder which means they disrupt the gut-to-brain axis. This causes your colon muscles to contract and cause abdominal pain.
There are three different types of IBS, depending on your bowel movements:
- IBS-C – IBS with constipation
- IBS – D – IBS with diarrhea
- IBS-M – IBS with mixed stool on the same day
Since IBS causes your colon muscles to contract more often than in healthy people, your bowel movements tend to be impaired as well. And even though it’s a very common syndrome many people experience today, there are some groups that are at a higher risk of developing IBS. These include:
- People who suffer from anxiety or emotional distress
- People with a food intolerance
- A family history of IBS
- People with a digestive tract infection
- People with a history of physical or sexual abuse
There is no specific treatment for IBS as everyone tends to experience it in a completely different way. What we do know is that lifestyle and dietary changes have to be made to have any positive influence on the painful and uncomfortable symptoms. Increasing fiber, avoiding processed foods, limiting sugars and caffeine, abstaining from dairy, exercising, stress management, and taking probiotics are the usual recommendations.
In some severe cases, your doctor might prescribe antidepressant medications as well as some other medicines, potentially in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy or hypnotherapy. Still, there is some pretty interesting research around serotonin and the potential treatment for IBS.
How Serotonin Can Help Treat IBS?
Ever since it was discovered that serotonin is mostly found in the gut, studies conducted throughout the years found many links between this feel-good hormone and the potential treatment of a variety of diseases and disorders affecting your gut. In 2009, a study came out with results showcasing how targeting serotonin receptors in your gut can actually help with IBS symptoms.
Did you know that your gut is often referred to as your “second brain”? It’s the home to the enteric nervous system which has very unique abilities in your body, allowing your gastrointestinal function to perform its roles independently of your central nervous system. This means it can function completely independently of your brain. One of these independent functions is secreting serotonin.
Serotonin can influence a variety of different gastrointestinal processes, from the motility (the speed of food moving through your digestive tract) and fluid level in your intestines to the sensitivity of your intestines to pain and discomfort.
People who are diagnosed with IBS tend to have suboptimal levels of serotonin than healthy individuals, which can be either too low (causing constipation) or too high (causing diarrhea). In addition, these disrupted serotonin levels can cause sleeping problems, the development of fibromyalgia (musculoskeletal pain), and anxiety and depression.
Depression is often treated with SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors that have a role in increasing the levels of serotonin in your gut. Normally, serotonin gets absorbed into the bloodstream and SSRIs prevent your blood from absorbing some of the serotonin, leaving more of this chemical to be available for your nerve cells. So, although SSRIs cannot actually treat your IBS, they can potentially help relieve abdominal pain, bloating, and other uncomfortable symptoms by elevating the levels of serotonin in your cells.
How to Increase Serotonin Naturally?
Although SSRIs are proven to be efficient, they are hard to come by unless you have real symptoms of depression. That’s why it’s important to find ways to naturally increase the levels of serotonin in your body. Some of the best ways of doing so include:
- Include specific serotonin-boosting foods in your diet such as pineapple and chia seeds that contain tryptophan, an important amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in your brain.
- Exercise – it’s known to trigger the release of tryptophan into your blood
- Massage therapy – studies show its amazing effect on your serotonin and dopamine levels, as well as your cortisol levels.
- Spending time in the sun – SAD, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a depressive condition many people experience when the weather becomes dark and gloomy, impacting their mood. Research shows amazing results with just 10-15 minutes spent in the sun or at least in the daylight every day.
- Dietary supplements – some supplements such as 5-HTP, St. John’s wort, and even probiotics seem to have a potentially positive effect on serotonin levels.
IBS is a serious condition that isn’t caused by one factor and as such, is difficult to successfully treat. The fact that by targeting serotonin receptors we can potentially have a positive influence on the symptoms of IBS only strengthens the link between the gut and the brain and shows its powerful intracellular communication.