An Intimate Connection: 
Mental Health and Our Digestive Tract

Aimee Duffy, M.D. Physician / Lifestyle Architect / Wellness Mentor                                                                             May 2023

There is a highway of information between our brain and intestines and what's happening below our belt may be influencing what's happening above it. As research explores how the trillions of microbes in our gastrointestinal tract (GI) affect our health and well-being, the link between our GI tract and our brain has become increasingly apparent. Understanding the connection between what we eat and how we feel on a mental and emotional level, healthy nutrition can play a big part for good mental health. And, while it may not be the only missing piece to the puzzle, our overall health will benefit from it.

Big Brain, Little Brain

Simply put, our stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or effect of anxiety, stress, or depression symptoms. For example, do you know the feeling of "butterflies" in your stomach before an important event? How about the phrase "go with your gut reaction"? Both circumstances demonstrate how our brain and digestive tract work together. Sometimes known as our second or little brain or enteric nervous system (ENS), the inner lining of our digestive tract that runs from our esophagus to the rectum, contains millions of nerve cells communicating with our big brain. And while the primary role of our little brain is to control digestion (releasing enzymes when we swallow that break down food, helping the absorption of nutrients and elimination), the interaction with our big brain is profound.

IBS and Bowel Problems

Until recently, scientists believed that anxiety and depression contributed to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms and other bowel problems such as diarrhea, constipation, and stomach pain. (Thirty to forty percent of our population suffer from bowel issues at some point in life.) But new studies from major universities show that it just may be the reverse! Evidence suggests that gastrointestinal irritation sends signals to the brain, triggering mood changes. The gut-brain connection also involves conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia. Studied extensively over the last decade due to its potential therapeutic value for treating anxiety disorders like PTSD and social anxiety disorder (SAD), researchers believe these disorders may result from an impaired gut–brain communication pathway, causing abnormal functioning of a person's biological stress response system.

History Speaks

More than 2500 years ago, Hippocrates, a Greek Physician, observed that "All disease begins in the gut," and developed a theory of chemical imbalance in the gut led to melancholy, more commonly known as depression. He recorded other evidence of mental health in the form of panic or hysteria and believed the intestines played an important role in good health. Knowing where and how to begin healing starts with well-known methods of optimal


Integrative Medicine has successfully proven it begins with a healthy diet, and because our GI tract contains good and bad bacteria, maintaining a delicate balance of both is essential. Eliminating a diet containing sugars, processed foods, and unhealthy fats and returning to whole and natural foods is crucial for reducing inflammation and restoring gut health. Probiotics, specific amino acids, and natural herbs can help to rebalance our system. Using fish oil, fermented food, and fiber-rich plants will also benefit both the gut and brain by supplying the nutrients and bulk we require. Testing for food sensitivities or allergies is yet another method to explore for the elimination of inflammation.


Believe it or not, exercise can promote bacteria diversity in our gut! Walking is one of the best exercise methods, as it aids in general digestive function, clears stomach toxins, and supports healthy total body weight. Activity and exercise should be a consistent part of your wellness regimen or, as your healthcare provider recommends. Alternative forms of healthy gut exercise include biking or yoga. Biking is an efficient way to move food through your digestive tract, while yoga can help to strengthen your abdominal muscles. Any or all of these forms of exercise help to reduce stress and provide benefits for both mind and body. And, doing them outdoors adds another layer of soothing relief.


Antibiotics are known for reducing the diversity of bacteria in our gut, so using them only when necessary is essential. Many symptoms can be treated with natural remedies, so talk with your doctor about an alternate plan. In addition, always share any significant medical or mental health history with your healthcare provider.


Psychological stress can affect our GI system in multiple ways. Stress can alter our food choices, leading to unhealthy food consumption. The unfortunate result is a reshaping of the bacteria's composition through hormones and inflammation and in response, additional hormones and toxins are released that will alter mood and behavior. Stress and depression can also increase gut barrier permeability, resulting in a "leaky gut" or barrier breakdown. Without the internal barrier of protection, bacteria and other harmful substances will seep back into our circulation, producing an inflammatory response and affecting our overall health.

Closing Thoughts

Our brain and gut have a lively ongoing dialog through the gut–brain axis. Stress and mood disorders compound one another and can become a cycle of frustration and mental and physical pain. Maintaining optimal health and practicing self-care will build a strong base for treating other conditions or diseases. I encourage you to learn as much as possible about this unique relationship that will enable a life-long future of mental and physical health.

Final Week!

If you'd like to learn more about self-care and becoming a healthier version of "you," please check out my upcoming Luxury Wellness Retreat overlooking the beautiful Pacific Ocean this May 15th to the 21st! We will guide you through yoga and meditation sessions, healthy cooking classes, and fitness classes tailored to your specific needs. Additionally, you'll have opportunities to participate in treatments, including massage therapy and Reiki, to help you relax and rejuvenate. We'll offer a variety of activities to help you connect with nature and explore - walks up to the top of the hill, yoga, workouts in the garden, water aerobics, and an excursion to watch the famous Acapulco Cliff Divers!"



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