The Thoughtful Gut: Part I

The Thoughtful Gut

The Thoughtful Gut: Part I

Want to Feel Happier? Less Depressed and Anxious? Heal Your Gut!

The gut plays a large role in your mental emotional health. If you’ve ever been told you may need a SSRI (serotonin reuptake inhibitor) for depression or anxiety, your gut is what produces most of that serotonin!

That is if your gut is healthy.

Naturopathic doctors, like myself, listen to you and use targeted testing to help you. With individualized treatments, your gut and mood can improve!

Let’s Talk. Take the First Step to Being the Healthiest and Happiest You!

The Gut Brain:

Think of your gut (gastrointestinal tract or GI tract) like a smart helper in your body. It’s not just there to help you digest food, but it’s also super important for how you feel and think. The reason it can do this is because it has its own nervous system and nerve center. Collectively, these are technically called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). In this article I’ll use its nickname, the “Gut Brain.”

Here’s Why Your Gut is So Much Like Your Brain:

It’s Packed with Nerves

Your gut has lots of tiny nerve cells — almost like a big network of friends talking to each other. This network helps your gut do its job without needing instructions from your actual brain.

Our throat and the action of chewing and swallowing food is controlled by our main brain. That’s because we need to actively think about what we are doing when we put food in our mouth. The “gut brain” begins in the stomach. (Can you imagine, if we had to actively think about the rest of the process– that would be way too much to do, and I don’t know about you, but my to-do list is already a lot. Our gut brain regulates GI tract movement, fluid, blood flow, and immune function. This is why we might say during an infection, “I’m sick to my stomach”). Its control travels from the stomach, through the small intestine, large intestine, colon, liver, and even the pancreas!

Did you hear that a recent study found that GERD, gastro-intestinal reflux disease, is associated with depression and anxiety? That’s because…

It Makes Happy Chemicals!

Your gut makes special chemicals that help you feel happy. It actually makes a lot of these happy chemicals, even more than your brain does! The gut produces a variety of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, GABA, acetylcholine, and histamine (yep, histamine is also a neurotransmitter- wild, right?!). These neurotransmitters play important roles in regulating mood, digestion, and overall gut function. Specifically:

Serotonin: Around 90-95% (wow!!!) of the entire body’s serotonin is made in our small intestine and colon by specialized cells. This serotonin helps control muscle movement (also called motility) in our lower GI tract. It also signals the gut to put out a fluid (mainly electrolytes and water) that influences sensations like nausea or fullness. It’s also the chemical that causes relaxation and promotes feelings of well-being after we eat. It also strongly interacts with histamine, more on that below.

Histamine: Nearly 95% of the body’s total histamine is produced and stored in those same specialized cells mentioned above. Unlike serotonin, histamine is mainly made in the stomach. Some of it is also made in the immune cells found throughout the gastrointestinal tract.

Histamine has a big role in gut function and health. It can be triggered whenever we eat something to which we are allergic or need immunity, and can even keep invaders from crossing the intestinal barrier. It’s sent out in response to nausea. It tells the stomach to excrete the acid that helps begin the breakdown of food. Histamine influences the movement of the digestive tract, helping to propel food through the intestines. I think histamine might need a nap!

Histamine and Serotonin can interact and influence each other’s effects. For example, serotonin can stimulate the release of histamine from certain cells in the gut, which can then lead to increased gastric acid production. (You’re probably starting to see why our mental-emotional health has such a strong influence on our ability to digest!) Along with that, both serotonin and histamine can balance immune responses in the gut and contribute to gut-brain communication.

Acetylcholine: Approximately 90-95% of the body’s total acetylcholine is produced mainly in the gut nerve centers, but also throughout the nerves of the gastrointestinal tract. It’s a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating GI tract muscle contractions (needed for motility and for churning the food and mixing it with the enzymes, good bacteria, and other gut fluids), secretion of digestive juices, and communication between those gut nerve centers and the literal millions of neurons surrounding and contacting the gastrointestinal tract. Histamine may need a nap, but acetylcholine needs to put in for some PTO!

Dopamine: A substantial portion of about 42–46% is made in the GI tract. It’s made in the two main gut nerve plexus. You can think of them like city centers where all the communication intersects. While dopamine has very similar roles in the “gut brain” as serotonin, the difference is dopamine is associated with stimulation, motivation, and reinforcement of behaviors. In this way, our responses to what we eat can be balanced. It partly explains why some foods are more “energizing” and others are more “relaxing.”

GABA: Around 30-40% is made in our gut. GABA helps with things like mood and feeling calm. Like dopamine, GABA is produced in the two large GI nerve plexus. It helps control the contractions of the muscles in the digestive system, influencing the movement of food through the gastrointestinal tract. This is also called “motility.” GABA has an influence on the secretion of digestive enzymes needed for food breakdown, mucilage needed to protect our intestinal barrier, and other fluids needed for absorbing nutrients. This neurotransmitter is also strongly involved in the process of “rest and digest.” Lastly, it helps with the communication between the gut brain and the main brain.

It Talks to Your Brain!

Your gut and your brain have deep conversations through a special connection. This means your gut can tell your brain how it’s feeling, and your brain listens. It goes both ways, too. The emotions we have influence how our gut behaves. This two-way communication helps control digestion, mood, and overall well-being.

The gut-brain axis communication involves various chemicals, vitamins, and minerals that play key roles in signaling between the gut and the brain. Some of these include:

Neurotransmitters: Serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are also involved in communication between the gut and the brain.

Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs): SCFAs produced by gut bacteria like butyrate, acetate, and propionate can influence brain function.

Vitamins: Vitamin D, vitamin B12, and other B vitamins are important for gut health and brain function, contributing to the gut-brain axis.

Minerals: Minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and iron are essential for both gut health and brain function, impacting communication between the two.

Specialized Tools to Access Your Gut, Mood, and Health.

At San Jose Integrative Medicine, I use specialized tests to optimize your health.

For the gut, you will be given a comprehensive digestive stool analysis. You will see the health of your microbiome, parasites, dysbiosis, enzyme levels, leaky gut, and your immune system. It can even tell you if you might have SIBO, Small Intestinal Bowel Overgrowth – confirmed with a breath test. In addition, blood and urine tests can measure your  neurotransmitters, vitamins and minerals.

Treatments Individualized for You.

No two people are identical. As a naturopathic doctor, I’ve been trained to tailer individualized treatments. Using herbs and targeted supplements, your gut and mood can improve.

Let’s Talk. Take the First Step to Being the Healthiest and Happiest You!

Book a free consultation with me, Dr. Fortes-Schramm.

I look forward to talking with you!


In the second part, I’ll add some hormones (including sex hormones) into the mix. Yeah, sex hormones help our gut think and communicate! We will also dive further into the influence of the “good” gut microbes, why the gut barrier is so important, and learn a bit more about the gut’s need for independence.

At San Jose Integrative Medicine, we help people lead healthier lives. Schedule your free phone consultation HERE.

Dr. Lisa Fortes-Schramm
Naturopathic Doctor
(408) 357-3422
San Jose Integrative Medicine
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Dr. Lisa Fortes Schramm

Dr. Lisa Fortes-Schramm is a Naturopathic Doctor, a Doctor of Traditional Chinese medicine, and has two degrees in the mental health field. She is experienced in treating people with anxiety and depression. If you’re experiencing anxiety and/or depression, or suspect you may be, talk with Dr. Fortes and she can tell you about your Naturopathic options.