How our digestive system effects our emotions

Words By Eva Wallis

We all know that familiar feeling you get when you take your seat in the exam hall and have an endless wait before being told you can begin – that churning in your stomach that can only be described as ‘butterflies’. 

Most of us have had first-hand experience of how our emotions, good or bad, can affect our digestive system, but what you may not realise is that this road is a two-way street. Your digestive system can just as much affect your emotions. According to Professor Calvin Coffey and his colleagues at the University of Limerick, they have speculated that this digestive system-emotional connection could be largely due to an organ you’ve probably never heard of before – the mesentery.

For a long time, the roles of the mesentery had been speculated with little progress to actually proving anything. Even Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings depicted it as a continuous structure in the 1400’s, however this wasn’t a widely accepted depiction until many years later. It is now widely accepted that the mesentery is, in fact, a continuous structure that all abdominal digestive organs originate from in a developing embryo. In adulthood the mesentery becomes these organs’ primary connection to the rest of the human body. Despite these rather important roles, the mesentery was only reclassified as an organ in its own right in 2017, making it the 79th organ of the human body.

Recent studies have shown that the mesentery and the vagus nerve (the nerve that sends signals between the digestive system and the brain and spinal cord) share an intricate connection. Coffey speculates that this, coupled with the fact that the mesentery links so many parts of the digestive system together, means that the mesentery and vagus nerve together allow nerve signals to be sent from different digestive organs simultaneously to the brain, which could create an emotional response.

So, this gives us an explanation of how our digestive system can affect our emotions, but how can we tell whether our emotions are what’s making our stomachs growl (normally at the moment everyone in the room goes silent), or whether that growl is causing our emotions?

The best place to start is to ask yourself ‘Am I hungry?’. We’ve all had a few ‘hangry’ moments in our life where perhaps we’ve been waiting for our pasta to boil and snapped at our housemates just because the pasta isn’t ready the instant the water starts boiling. In those moments, you’ll often find that as soon as you eat the red mist quickly clears and you realise it was your digestive system causing those emotions all along.

If, however, you still don’t feel 100% after a quick bite to eat it’s worth asking yourself if you’re anxious or nervous about anything, even if it may seem like a really small thing. This is an example of your digestive system listening to your emotions, and even what may seem like the smallest of feelings can knock it out of kilter.

So, the next time you’re not feeling yourself and you’re not sure why, remember it could be your digestive system trying to tell you something. Grab a chocolate bar (or an apple if you’re feeling healthy) and, you never know, those unexplainable emotions may begin to fade away.

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