Mental Health and Gut

Remember that “butterflies in your stomach” feeling when you are nervous? Well, that is the brain and the gut communicating through the nervous system, hormones, and the immune system to help regulate the body’s immune response. So, when you sense danger or the “fight or flight” response is activated, your body is diverting its energy to the cause of the threat. Let me explain!

The enteric nervous system is a network of nerves, neurons and neurotransmitters extending along the digestive tract, starting from the esophagus and down towards the rectum. The enteric nervous system relies on neurons and neurotransmitters much like what is found in the central nervous system. So, the “second brain”, a term coined by some medical experts, is your gut overseeing communication with the brain in your head and your overall health. The connection between the gut and the brain works in both directions. It is a complex and dynamic system that continuously transmits, interprets, and responds to information via the vagus nerve. The familiar feelings of excitement or nervousness churn the stomach to possibly create gastrointestinal problems (e.g., heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation, diarrhea) and generate anxiety, stress, and depression. You may have heard about enhancing beneficial bacteria in the gut through the use of probiotics, prebiotics, or dietary change to improve mood and reduce mental health concerns, and while that is important, just remember that you cannot solely eat your way out of feeling stressed, depressed or anxious!

Types of Psychotherapy

Relaxation Therapy – The goal is to help relax and reduce your reaction to stress through progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and restful music. For instance, allowing your breath to travel deep into the diaphragm, tensing and relaxing your various muscle groups, and using your mind to envision a calm, peaceful, and relaxing place to divert attention away from worrisome thoughts.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy – Its purpose is to help you modify your thoughts, behaviour and emotional responses and learn coping skills to better manage anxiety and stress. Unhelpful thoughts negatively impact how you feel and how you behave, so by evaluating and modifying these thoughts and behaviours, you can improve your emotional state. It can be used to pause the harmful effects of the “fight or flight” response and turn on the “rest and digest” response.

So next time you have that funny sensation in your stomach, think about what your “second brain” is communicating with you!


Kirthana Erskine is a Registered Therapist (Qualifying) with College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario. One of Kirthana’s areas of interest includes stress management. Kirthana uses evidence-based modalities and an integrative approach in order to help her clients receive treatment that is personalized to their unique needs.

DISCLAIMER: This blog is meant for psychoeducational purposes only. Intended solely to provide you with information and is not meant to take the place of therapy.

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