Q: When you hear the term “broken heart,” does that mean the neurons actually die or is it just a euphemism?

A: I know of no research that says the neurons “die” in the heart. Heart neurons are believed able to think and to perceive emotions. When a strong protective emotion such as fear or sadness arises in the heart, this can alter its rhythms and can be transmitted to the brain via an unmediated channel. The brain begins to empathize with the heart and what the heart feels can be translated in the brain into conscious thought.

The same thing can happen with the neurons in the Gastrointestinal System or gut. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS or IBD) is also referred to as an enteric neuropathy. The vagus, one of the largest and most important nerves in the human organism, goes directly from the gastrointestinal system to the brain. When the brain and the heart begin to feel anxious, fearful, sad, or angry, that gets transmitted to neurons in the gut. The outcome can be diarrhea, flatus, constipation, bleeding, ulcers, and you name it. Neuropathy simply means that the nerves are unhappy. There may be as many neurons in the G.I. system as there are in the brain.

Everything starts in the brain. Your thoughts create your mindset (fixed or growth), which then is reflected in your self-talk, what you say to yourself and others, and that drives your actions and behaviors—all based on what is happening in the brain. Your mindset will affect every organ and every neuron throughout your brain and body for positive or negative outcomes. Recent studies have shown that individuals with IBS may be at higher risk for dementia. Consequently, getting to the root of the problem with a health-care professional and crafting a workable recovery plan can be key.