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The "Brain-Gut" Connection


Posted By: Lauren Gashlin, Psy.D.

"This knot in my stomach is killing me"
"Work is causing me such agita"
"I have the butterflies"
"My gut is telling me it's not right."

Where did these sayings come from? What do they all have in common?

Based on the fact that these sayings have been around for decades, our society clearly recognizes that there is a connection between our “gut” and our feelings. Our gastrointestinal tract, which spans from our esophagus to our intestines, is exquisitely sensitive to our emotional state for reasons that we are only beginning to understand.

  • Our “big” brain maintains a feedback loop with our “little” brain (i.e., our gut) so that the two are constantly talking.
  • The “big brain and “little brain are very similar in their chemical make-up.
  • The gut is like a little mirror of the brain. It can reflect what is happening in the brain, including various thoughts and feelings we have. This mirroring effect plays out in the form of aches, pains, vomiting, cramps, loss or increase in appetite, etc.

Logically, we seek medical attention to investigate what the cause is and how to treat these symptoms. Unfortunately, sometimes the doctors cannot definitively identify what is causing these symptoms or how to stop these symptoms from re-occurring.

This is especially true in children. Why? 

  1. They are still developing their “emotional vocabulary”—what does it mean to be stressed, worried, disappointed, or depressed?
  2. They are still “connecting the dotsFor instance:
    • Math
    • Math is hard for me and I don’t like the teacher
    • Math class gives me anxiety
    • Anxiety gives me stomachaches
    • This is why I get stomachaches every afternoon before Math class.
  3. They are still learning the ropes of communicating all of these insights to others so that others can offer help, guidance, tips, etc.
  4. They may not know how to cope with stress, anxiety, worry, etc. in a more productive manner. 

 All of the negative feelings and thoughts remain bottled up in the “big” brain, reflected in the mirror of the “little” brain, and put it in the spotlight at certain places and times, such as in the morning before school or when traveling to unfamiliar destinations.

3 tips for problems in the “brain-gut” connection:

  1. Follow-up with your medical doctors to rule out any medical cause for the symptom(s).
  2. Track your symptoms with a calendar to identify the “who, what, where, when, and whys?” See if there are common links or patterns that might help you connect the dots.
  3. Create a plan. A plan might involve a combination of problem-solving, stress management, counseling, or biofeedback. Counseling and Biofeedback are two short-term treatments available. These treatments will expedite the process of:
    • developing an emotional vocabulary
    • connecting the dots
    • learning the art of communication
    • finding alternative ways of coping with difficult situations, people, etc. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing problems with their “brain-gut” connection, the clinicians at NRS/LifeSpan can help you. Call our office at 732-988-3441 to make an appointment.