If you’ve ever felt your insides twist in knots before a big speech, you know the stomach listens carefully to the brain. In fact, the entire digestive system is closely tuned to a person’s emotions and state of mind, says William E. Whitehead, PhD, a professor of medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology and director of the Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders.
In the past — back when scientists believed the mind and the body operated as separate entities — some physicians wrote off digestive distress with no sign of organic disease as being “all in the head.”
But in recent years, that wall has crumbled. Doctors now see intricate links between the nervous system and the digestive system. The two realms constantly exchange streams of chemical and electrical messages, and anything that affects one is likely to affect the other.
The connections between the two systems are so tight that scientists often refer to them as one entity: the brain-gut axis, an increasingly hot topic in medicine. For people suffering from persistent digestive troubles unconnected to disease, such research suggests that reducing stress, depression, and anxiety may go a long way toward calming the gut.