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May 22, 2023

Gut-Brain Connection in Gastrointestinal Conditions

Nervous belly? Gut feeling? We have all been there! Maybe you felt like you might throw up before an important work presentation… or you had to run to the bathroom in the middle of a first date.

At some point in your life, you have likely experienced the close connection between your digestive tract and your emotions. But did you realize that your gut (not your brain!) produces 95% of the serotonin in your body?

Serotonin and the Gut

Serotonin is an important chemical that carries messages throughout your body and helps to control mood, sleep, digestion, and many other critical functions. Multiple other chemicals also connect our brains and our digestion. In fact, there are millions of nerve fibers that create a direct highway from our brain to our digestive tract, and that highway is a two-way street. Our brain signals our gut, AND our gut signals our brain.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The discovery in recent years of the clear chemical link between the gut and brain has helped us better understand how to treat digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a common condition characterized by recurring abdominal pain, cramping, and changes in bowel movements that are not caused by other diseases or damage in the intestine. Approximately 10-15% of American adults have been diagnosed with IBS, likely more have similar symptoms without a formal diagnosis.

Although each of us has a direct link between our brain and digestive tract, some people experience more frequent or severe symptoms that are formally diagnosed as IBS.  These people often produce less serotonin or have less serotonin receptors in their digestive tract. It is just the way their system is built, and it may be something that runs in their family.

Understanding the role of serotonin in our digestive symptoms has opened the door to better solutions for patients who suffer with IBS or even situational digestive issues. Multiple large research trials have shown that regular mindfulness meditation significantly improved quality of life and pain scores in patients with IBS. Evidence also supports the role for regular exercise to stabilize and boost serotonin production in the gut (and brain) and reduce IBS symptoms.


Although meditation and exercise are critical components to controlling IBS, some patients also benefit from serotonin-based medications which can chemically support the gut. Initially developed to treat depression and anxiety, the medication class called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (or SSRIs) plays an important role in managing IBS symptoms. This is clearly because of the predominance of serotonin and serotonin receptors in the gut. Often patients who start SSRIs for mood symptoms report improvement in IBS symptoms.

In addition to SSRIs, newer medication classes focus on blocking or activating very specific serotonin receptors in the gut to target symptoms such as nausea or constipation. Uncontrolled IBS symptoms can significantly impact a person’s quality of life and the symptoms are not just in their head.  The good news is that we continue to reveal novel ways to treat IBS and we are learning more every day.

How Avance Care Can Help

Talk to your family doctor! We can help! At Avance Care, our primary care offices are integrated with behavioral health and nutrition, so when conditions like IBS affect your mood and are solved with the help of nutrition, you can access your same care team all in the same office. And, you can guarantee they’re all collaborating and on the same page for your treatment plan. Contact your Avance Care location today!

Be sure to check out the three other posts in this series!

Part 1: Nutrition Management of Gastrointestinal Conditions

Part 2: Helpful Tips for Living with Digestive Disorders

Part 3: 99 Problems but a Colon Ain’t One: Health Testimony

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