The brain and the gut are intricately connected--when we feel anxious or excited, we sometimes describe the feeling as "butterflies in the stomach." For younger children who may not be as well-versed in describing their feelings, a disruption between the mind and the stomach may not be as easy to describe with words. Instead, they may have more physical symptoms that lead to difficulties with eating or with keeping food down. 

What is the gut-brain connection? 

The "gut-brain connection" is another way of describing the enteric nervous system. This system of nerves surrounds the gut and is one of the layers of the digestive track. It's sometimes called "the second brain" as it communicates directly with our big brain, letting us know when we're hungry or full. The enteric nervous system also controls all stages of digestion, allowing the stomach and the intestines to communicate. This bi-directional highway sends signals from the brain to the digestive track and vice versa. 

When this highway is disrupted in some way, it can lead to gut-brain dysfunction, or functional gastrointestinal disorders. 

What role does mental health play in the gut-brain connection? 

Because the enteric nervous system runs both ways between the brain and the gut, mental health can play an important role in digestive health. Some of us lose our appetites when we're stressed—the anxiety that we're experiencing in our brain is being communicated to our stomachs. 

In children and adults with gut-brain dysfunction, many of them are experiencing anxiety or depression, leading to problems with eating or digesting food. 

What are some symptoms of gut-brain dysfunction?

Common symptoms of a dysfunction between the gut and the brain include: 

  • chronic vomiting 
  • diarrhea 
  • constipation 
  • bloating 
  • abdominal pain 
  • nausea 

These symptoms overlap with a variety of other digestive concerns, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). For children, these concerns can have long-lasting effects, especially as their developing bodies rely on steady nutrition. 

How is a functional gastrointestinal disorder diagnosed? 

A pediatric gastroenterologist is a trained pediatric specialist who can diagnose your child with any form of functional GI disorder. Based on the child’s reported signs and symptoms and comprehensive physical examination, a clinical diagnosis can be made, and treatment can be recommended. The diagnosis usually does not require an extensive test. If an alarm symptom such as weight loss, blood in the vomit or stool, or recurrent fevers, is presented, limited laboratory tests may be ordered. 

How do I fix my gut-brain connection, or help my child with theirs? 

There are many steps you can take to fix your gut-brain connection and help your child with theirs. First and foremost, introducing and modeling healthy lifestyle behaviors can help. 

Getting enough quality sleep is important for you and your child. Establish your own sleep hygiene routine to help you get enough sleep, and help your child work on learning good sleep habits at an early age. 

Making time every day for cardio activity not only keeps our bodies strong and active, but it also helps us relieve stress and anxiety and tires us out so we're able to fall asleep easier. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise every day—it doesn't have to be all at once

A well-balanced diet with a mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fats is important for adults and children alike. Teaching kids to eat healthy at a young age will help them throughout their lives and help prevent some diet-related health concerns, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease

It is also important to teach children how to maintain their mental health as we work on our own. Many mindfulness and wellness practices to reduce stress, such as yoga, mindful walking, or meditating, can be done with your children, or through programs for children. Professional help is also available for children—cognitive behavioral therapy or hypnotherapy can help not only with gut-brain connection concerns but also help children learn how to respond to stress and other challenges they'll encounter through life. 

In some instances, medication can help, but so much can be done to reset the gut-brain connection without medication. 

A new program to heal the gut-brain connection 

At Hasbro Children's Hospital, our Pediatric Gastroenterology, Nutrition, and Liver Diseases program is developing a new multidisciplinary clinic to provide support to children with functional gastrointestinal disorders. This approach combines nutritional education with pediatric psychology to work with each family to develop a personalized treatment plan for each child.

Learn more about the Pediatric Gastroenterology, Nutrition, and Liver Diseases program on our website or call 401-444-8306.

Irina Gorbounova, MD

Irina Gorbounova, MD

Dr. Irina Gorbounova is a pediatric gastroenterologist at Hasbro Children's Hospital.