Serotonin and gut health – a key connection

Dr. Michael Papper, board-certified gastroenterologist, shares insight about the gut-brain.

“The brain-gut connection is a hot topic recently. So let’s talk about it!

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has many roles in the way our bodies function including mood, happiness and feelings of well-being, stabilizing your mood, aiding learning and memory. It also affects many aspects of our gut function. Serotonin plays a role in how fast or slow things move through your GI tract and how we feel pain in the GI tract. Additionally, it stimulates the part of the brain that controls nausea.

And guess what?  95% of your serotonin receptors are in the GI tract and only 5% are in your brain. So, it’s not surprising that anything that affects your mental state or changes your serotonin levels can dramatically affect your GI tract. Examples include butterflies in your stomach, a “nervous stomach”, or when it feels like stress is giving you an ulcer. Emotional stress actually has no role in stomach ulcers but it has a lot to do why your stomach can hurt in trying times.

Irritable bowel syndrome, functional dyspepsia (what is commonly known as “indigestion”), and nausea and vomiting are all caused by changes in the serotonin system. In fact, gastroenterologists often use medications that can work on the serotonin receptors in the GI tract. Some can speed up the GI tract to alleviate constipation,  some can slow down the GI tract in those with diarrhea, some help with nausea and some help eliminate abdominal pain.

Not everyone needs medication, though! There’s a lot you can do to tune up your serotonin system to put your GI tract at ease. Getting plenty of sleep and exercise, relaxation techniques including yoga and massage, and alternative medicine including acupuncture can have a big impact on your quality of life.

So if your GI tract is out of whack, do a quick inventory of your mental state. Try to decrease stress and anxiety in whatever ways work for you and see how it can make your GI tract feel better. And of course, talk to your gastroenterologist about your symptoms. There are numerous ways we can help you get your GI tract back on track, including diet changes, pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical remedies.”