There’s a ‘second brain’ in your gut — and it’s smarter than you think
07/07/17 04:46 PM
Loc: Seattle, WA
There's a 'second brain' in your gut — and it's smarter than you think
By Erin Van Der Meer
We tend to think of the brain as the control centre of the human body.
While that is the case, scientists are making new discoveries about a second, smaller brain in the gut that can function independently of the brain in our skulls.
The "second brain" or enteric nervous system (ENS) is a network of around half a billion nerve cells and neurons (about the same amount as the brain of an adult cat) in the gut wall, responsible for controlling the gastrointestinal system.
Scientists are confident learning more about it could solve gut health issues like IBS and constipation, and shed more light on the link between the gut and mental health.
Meet your second brain
Most of us have experienced the feeling of "butterflies" in the tummy when we're nervous, or our stomach "dropping" upon hearing bad news.
But this communication between the brain and the ENS isn't just one way.
Not only is the ENS involved with appetite control, signalling to the brain when we're full, but an emerging area of research suggests the second brain can affect many parts of the "main" or "big" brain, including how it processes thoughts and emotions.
Medical professionals have long been aware of the link between anxiety and depression and digestion issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), thinking the former caused the latter.
But increasingly it seems to be the other way around, as studies show irritation in the gastrointestinal system can trigger mental changes.
"The gut and the brain have a bi-directional relationship; they are interconnected primarily via the vagus nerve which is able to transfer chemical messages between the two," explains Coach's go-to gut health expert, accredited practicing dietitian and founder of Travelling Dietitian Kara Landau.
"Poor gut health has been shown to lead to inflammation throughout the body; and inflammation has been shown to be associated with depression and anxiety.
"Considering our gut sends out chemical messages of its own separate from the brain, including producing around 90 percent of our mood calming neurotransmitter, serotonin, it is no surprise that having a healthy gut has been shown to be associated with enhanced mood regulation."
The potential to solve gut issues
A new study led by the Francis Crick Institute in London mapped the ENS in order to make sense of the complicated system, with the aim of identifying the cause of common gut and digestive issues, like IBS and constipation.
"Now that we have a better understanding of how the enteric nervous system is built and works, we can start to look at what happens when things go wrong, particularly during the critical stages of embryo development or early life," said Reena Lasrado, first author of the paper and researcher at the Crick Institute.
"Perhaps mistakes in the blueprint used to build the neural networks of the gut are the basis of common gastrointestinal problems."
Better understanding the ENS is also likely to help people who are overweight or obese due to overeating, as Landau explains.
"If this system is defective, correct signaling may be impeded.
"This could lead to poorer appetite regulatory hormone signaling between the gut and the brain, and therefore result in increased hunger or a decrease in satiety cues, and therefore overeating or gaining weight."
How to maintain a healthy gut brain
The evidence of the gut-mood connection is still in the early stages, but it's clear maintaining a healthy gut is crucial for mental wellbeing and overall health.
"Having a healthy gut ensures maximum nutrient absorption can take place, which supports proper hormone production and regulation, which benefits mood regulation," Landau explains.
"Ensuring we consume a gut supportive diet, high in probiotic and prebiotic-rich foods and beverages, and low in added sugar and artificial ingredients, is a great place to start.
So what should you eat to help your second brain function optimally?
"Fermented foods, probiotic-enhanced products — that are still live and able to successfully colonise in our gut — as well as prebiotic dietary fibre rich foods and resistant starch rich foods are all going to be beneficial for overall gut integrity.
"Some of the richest sources of prebiotics and resistant starch are chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, onions and garlic, and green banana flour."
Topping fruit with natural yoghurt, mixing sauerkraut in a salad or ordering some kimchi at a Korean restaurant are also simple ways to make your gut brain smile.
Heather is the Administrator of the IBS Message Boards. She is the author of Eating for IBS and The First Year: IBS, and the CEO of Heather's Tummy Care. Join her IBS Newsletter. Meet Heather on Facebook!
Edited by Heather (07/17/17 04:36 PM)