Dr's Casebook: The way your bowel functions can affect the way you feel

In a few previous articles I have reported on research being done on the gut-brain axis.

Saturday, 4th December 2021, 4:45 pm

Dr Keith Souter writes: This is quite a complex concept that suggests an interaction between the brain and central nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, the endocrine or hormonal system and the gut microbiome. The latter refers to the microflora within the bowel.

It all seems to link up with anxiety, depression and various conditions affecting the bowels. The way you feel can affect your bowel, and vice versa, the way your bowel functions can affect the way you feel. It partially explains why people have ‘gut feelings.’

The gut-brain axis seems to be a very real thing. Indeed, the very latest research from Michigan State University in the USA shows that the gut actually contains its own enteric nervous system, which is a network of nerve cells called neurons and glia that line the whole intestine.

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This new research opens up a whole new range of possibilities to help people with irritable bowel syndrome

These are the same cells found in the brain and central nervous system. The neurons are the nerve cells that transmit messages as electric impulses.

The glia, once thought to be simply supporting nerve cells have now been found to have a modulating effect on the neurons.

The researchers suggest that if you think of the neurons and glia as being like an electric guitar, the strings are like the neurons producing the musical notes, and the glia are like the pedals and amplifiers that modulate the tone and the volume.

Incredibly, the number of neurons and glia that line the intestine is about the equivalent found in a cat’s brain.

This nervous system in the gut also uses many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain, so it should not be a surprise that there is a link between the two.

This new research opens up a whole new range of possibilities to help people with irritable bowel syndrome, and other motility problems like constipation.

It may be that drugs can be developed to alter the modulating effect of the glia cells of the enteric nervous system to reduce painful spasms and the sluggish movements that produce constipation.

And of course, it may offer new ways of treating anxiety and depression.

We are not there yet, but this opens up exciting possibilities to help many people with these various conditions.