Understanding the gut-brain-heart connection
The key to better cardiovascular and mental health might begin in the gut.
If common phrases are any indication, we’ve long believed in a connection between the gut and the brain. We feel a “gut instinct” when making a decision or have a “gut reaction” to something we don’t like. We complain of a “nervous stomach” during stressful times. As it turns out, these may have some scientific backing, as research shows that the brain is linked quite closely to the gastrointestinal system.
Scientists have determined that nerve cells line the entire gastrointestinal tract, from esophagus to rectum, and have named this network the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is responsible for controlling digestion every step of the way and seems to communicate with the brain and central nervous system. It may explain why people who cope with irritable bowel syndrome also experience anxiety or depression at a higher rate than those who don’t (and vice versa). And it’s why the gut is sometimes called the second brain.
But there is a third piece to this puzzle, and it’s the heart. New to the scene, the gut-heart connection is still being studied by scientists. One study , for example, hoped to discover why fiber intake is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Researchers found that a specific gut bacteria (called Roseburia) seems to use fiber to create butyrate (a fatty acid) which then decreases inflammation and reduces the hardening and narrowing of the arteries in mice. Another study showed that eating probiotics regularly may promote healthy blood pressure.
The fact that these three systems are so closely linked means that interventions that help one can help the others. Eating a whole and high-fiber diet will not only feed bacteria but also help the heart. Exercise is known to help cardiovascular health and mental health, together. And, of course, taking a probiotic supplement or eating foods rich in beneficial bacteria can help the gastrointestinal system—the lynchpin of the gut-brain-heart connection.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.