You’ve probably heard about the gut-brain connection by now. Although it’s a fairly new area of scientific research, we are learning a lot about the fascinating and exciting influence our second brain (gut) has on so many areas of our health and wellness.
Why is the Gut Referred to as Our Second Brain?
Ok I’ll get a little technical here, sorry. Our “second brain” is actually called the enteric nervous system and it regulates the gut. This smart cookie has two thin layers of over 100 million nerve cells that line your gastrointestinal tract. And while it can’t solve maths equations or compose music, the enteric nervous system maintains constant communication with the brain. Your enteric nervous system is also in charge of digestion, from releasing enzymes, to swallowing, controlling blood flow, nutrient absorption and elimination.
The enteric nervous system doesn’t appear to be capable of thought in the way we are familiar with. However, it communicates constantly with the brain, back and forth with astounding results. Although there is a communication happening both ways, around 90% of communication is travelling from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve and only 10% moves in the other direction.
The enteric nervous system appears to trigger emotions. For decades, scientists believed that anxiety and depression were contributing to gut disorders such as constipation, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome; however recent studies show that it may actually be the other way around. Research is showing amazing evidence that irritation in the gut is triggering signals to be sent to the brain that cause mood changes. This shows the relationship between the high percentage of those with gut problems and depression and anxiety.
Our gut also produces the majority of our serotonin. Serotonin is a well-known brain neurotransmitter and 90% is produced in the gut. Altered levels of gut serotonin have been linked to diseases such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and irritable bowel syndrome.
What Can We Do to Maintain a Healthy Gut-Brain Connection?
Bacteria! Oh the lovely human gut microbiome. Unfortunately, modern life is destroying our gut microbiome. High consumption of processed foods, high meat and low plant food diets, stress, antibiotics and hyper-cleanliness are some of the most common factors in modern life that are negatively affecting our gut bacteria.
The gut microbiome is essential to human health. It plays a major role in maintaining a healthy immune system (most of which is in our gut), and plays an essential part in the communication that happens between our gut and brain. Studies are showing that our gut microbiome is connected to metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity, as well as neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism, depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Often people with these conditions have gut problems to some degree.
We are starting to discover how important gut health is and how it may play a part in numerous conditions ranging from mild to serious disease. A healthy gut may just be one of the most important aspects to wellness, yet probably requires more than just a good diet. Considering there is communication going both ways (to and from the brain), thoughts may also have an impact on gut health. In fact, we already know that chronic stress kills our good bacteria and allows the bad guys to grow.
However, considering that 90% of communication is the other way (from the gut to the brain), it may be that the gut has more of an influence over our moods than the brain does. But the brain does send its own communication to the gut and has its own influence. It’s the chicken and the egg, what came first? Was it the irritated gut that told the brain to become stressed or depressed? Or was it the brain that told the gut it was stressed, resulting in the gut responding in a negative way?
At the moment many treatments for conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression focus solely on the brain. Health professionals need to start looking at gut health more and make it a major aspect of treatment for these and possibly other conditions. This smart cookie (who probably likes cookies), has much more of an impact on our health and wellness than we have been giving it credit for.