Subject: Your Gut is a Second Brain
The emerging and surprising view of how the enteric nervous system in our bellies goes far beyond just processing the food we eat.
Most of us can relate to the experience of having butterflies in our stomach, or to a visceral gut-wrenching feeling, and how often are we told not to ignore our “gut-instinct” or “gut-feeling” when making a decision.
Even from our simple slang, it’s clear just how symbolically connected the gut is to our emotions. Now, there’s tangible proof to support these popular metaphors.
Being a therapist, the connection to good physical health and good mental/emotional being are heavily linked and for good reason.
The gut as second brain
Our gut plays a vital role in our physical and psychological health by way of it’s own neural network: the enteric nervous system (ENS), a complex system of about 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut.
The ENS is sometimes called the “second brain,” and it actually arises from the same tissues as our central nervous system (CNS) during fetal development. Therefore, it has many structural and chemical parallels to the brain.
Our ENS doesn’t make executive decisions like the gray shiny mound in our skulls. Yet, in a miraculously orchestrated symphony of hormones, neurotransmitters, and electrical impulses through a pathway of nerves, both “brains” communicate back and forth. These pathways include and involve endocrine, immune, and neural pathways.
It is clear that the brain and gut are so intimately connected that it sometimes seems like one system, not two.
We all have a microbiome, and they are as unique as our neural pathways
Research has shown that the body is actually composed of more bacteria than cells. We are more bug than human! Most of this bacteria resides in our gut playing multiple roles in our overall health. This new research no longer has the gut seen as an entity with the sole purpose of digestion, rather, it’s also being considered as a key player in regulating inflammation and immunity.
A healthy gut consists of different iterations of bacteria for different people, and this diversity maintains wellness. A shift away from “normal” gut microbiota diversity is called dysbiosis, and dysbiosis may contribute to disease. In light of this, the microbiome has become the focus of much research attention as a new way of understanding autoimmune, gastrointestinal, and even brain disorders.
Throughout our lives, our microbiome continues to be a vulnerable entity, and as we are exposed to stress, toxins, chemicals, certain diets, and even exercise, our microbiome fluctuates for better or worse.
Food scientist, Heribert Watzke tells us about the "hidden brain" in our gut and the surprising things it makes us feel in this compelling TEDx talk.
Our emotions play a big role in disorders
Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it has become clear that emotional and psychosocial factors can trigger symptoms in the gut. Not surprising, this has become especially true in cases when the gut acts up and there’s no obvious physical cause.
Psychological factors can literally impact upon physical factors, like the movement and contractions of the GI tract, causing, inflammation, pain, and other bowel symptoms.
Mental health impacts gut wellness
In light of this new understanding, it might be impossible to heal without considering the impact of stress and emotion. Studies have shown that patients who tried psychologically based approaches had greater improvement in their symptoms compared with patients who received conventional medical treatment.
Poor gut health can lead to neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders
Vice-versa, poor gut health has been implicated in neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders. Disturbances in gut health have been linked to multiple sclerosis, autistic spectrum disorders, and Parkinson’s disease. This is potentially related to pro-inflammatory states elicited by gut dysbiosis-microbial imbalance on or inside the body. Additional connections between age-related gut changes and Alzheimer’s disease have also been made.
Further, there is now research that is dubbing depression as an inflammatory disorder mediated by poor gut health. Our brain’s health, is dependent on many lifestyle choices that mediate gut health; including most notably diet (i.e., reduction of excess sugar and refined carbohydrates) and pre and probiotic intake. Gluten also has become a major food component known to create body inflammation as more and more people develop gluten allergies or opt to avoid it all together.
The brain-gut connection has treatment implications
We are now faced with the possibility of both prevention and treatment of neurological/neuropsychiatric difficulties via proper gut health. On the flip side, stress-reduction and other psychological treatments can help prevent and treat gastrointestinal disorders. This discovery can potentially lead to reduced morbidity, impairment, and chronic dependency on health care resources.
The most empowering aspect to the gut-brain connection is the understanding that many of our daily lifestyle choices play a role in mediating our overall wellness. This whole-body approach to healthcare and wellness continues to show its value in our longevity, well-being, and quality of life: that both physical and mental health go hand-in-hand.
The mind and gut connection is one of intrigue and fascination, further demonstrating the holistic interconnectedness of the human body.
For more help on how to live a compelling and healthy life, reach out to me for a chat. I’m here to help.
As always, to your good mental health…and gut too!