Rather than the one brain found in our head, scientists have revealed that we have two brains – the other one is located in the digestive tract. Known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), the ‘gut’s brain’ or the ‘brain in the belly’ is housed under the mucosal lining and between the muscular layers of the esophagus, the stomach, and the small and large intestines.
Amazingly, when scientists finally estimated the number of nerve cells in the gut-brain, they found it contained over one hundred million neurons – more than the number of nerve cells in the spinal cord. The implication here is that we’re housing a huge source of potentially untapped intelligence. What’s fascinating to note is that researchers have observed a greater amount of neural traffic from the gut-brain to the head-brain, than from the head-brain to the gut brain. In other words, rather than the head informing the digestive system what to eat and how to metabolize, the command focus is stationed in the belly.
Your gut clearly has a lot to say, and the head-brain happily listens.
Considering the above, the question arises: Is there a connection between anxiety, depression, stress, moods, i.e., the brain and the immune system?
When you're stressed, your gut knows it—immediately!
It’s not just a stomach ache that can sour your day. It’s much more!
There’s an ecosystem of bacteria and neural network operating in our guts. The enteric nervous system is a mesh-like network of neurons that lines the entire digestive track. It causes the sensation of nervous butterflies or a pit in your stomach that are parts of our stress responses.
It’s not a thinking brain—it does not reason, write poetry, or solve multi-linear regressions—but there is evidence that your gut’s health influences your mood.
No need to panic: This is not an alien takeover! Our gut bacteria have evolved with us since birth. They help digest our food and fight off unfriendly outsiders like viruses and molds. The bacteria communicate with neurotransmitters within our enteric nervous system that sends messages influencing the way we feel.
The digestive tract is lined with cells that produce and receive neuropeptides and neurochemicals, which are also found in the brain. These include: serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and glutamate, many hormones and chemicals previously thought to exist only in the brain, were found to be active in the gut!
Low levels of serotonin and other related hormones, like dopamine, are believed to cause depression, anxiety, moodiness and even some chronic illnesses. These hormones help us sleep and wake up energized. It is estimated that 90 percent of the body's serotonin is made in the digestive tract.
The enteric nervous system (the gut-brain), and the central nervous system (the head-brain), share another similarity. In the sleep state, the head-brain moves through cycles of 90 minutes of slow-wave sleep frequencies, immediately followed by rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in which dreams are produced. The gut-brain also moves through a nightly cycle of 90 minutes of slow-wave muscular contractions followed by brief spurts of rapid muscular movements.
In Japanese culture, the midsection is the seat of wisdom, physicality and spirituality. It is called the Hara, a point below the navel. They refer to it as the place of higher thought.
Americans refer to the head as ‘command central’! We point to the head when we say, ‘I know’, while the Japanese point to the belly. We acknowledge this with the expression: “You’ve got guts”, meaning there is a large amount of brain power in your belly!
No matter what you call it, it is smarter than you imagined and can change your metabolism and your life!
The gut is often a barometer of our emotions and stress. Those who suffer from peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, upset stomach, etc. would agree. When we say we can’t ‘stomach’ a situation, or something makes us want to ‘gag’, or we have ‘a knot’ in our stomach, we are expressing a mind-body sensation that comes from the enteric nervous system – the brain in the belly. The gut produces chemicals that are the substances found in prescription drugs such as Valium and Xanax! Your gut produces these drugs naturally!
Given the two brains' commonalities, treatments for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses that target the mind, can impact the gut. The enteric nervous system uses many of the neurotransmitters that the brain does.
The second brain doesn’t do complex thinking, but it handles the essential daily grind involved in digesting food to insure the nutrients and vitamins are absorbed appropriately.
Research is investigating how the second brain mediates the body's immune response. They are learning how the trillions of bacteria in the gut "communicate" with the enteric nervous system of the second brain to help with immunity and good health.
That doesn't mean, that gastrointestinal conditions are "all in your head." Psychology combines with physical issues causing pain and other bowel symptoms. Stress, depression or other psychological factors can cause contractions of the GI tract, make inflammation worse, or make you more susceptible to infection.
If you want to improve your health, start with your gut. Our gut intelligence has been underused, and perhaps even dumbed-down because of decades of poor food quality, stressful eating and exposure to a toxic world.
It’s time to exercise your gut wisdom. Tune in to this part of your physiology. Ask your gut for feedback. Notice your gut feelings. What does your gut-brain say your body is hungering for? How does it assess the person you’re having coffee with? Again, the enteric nervous system is capable of its own unique kind of intelligence that’s different from head brain intellect. It has its own brand of smarts that’s delivered via subtle sensations, curious feelings, instinct, and intuition.
So, do you have the guts to listen to your gut? Are you ready to listen to its whispers?
And if so, what does your gut have to say to you?
This article is not meant to provide any medical advice to any particular person. Each person's condition is different, and the proper treatment depends on your own particular body and its needs. Consult a doctor or alternative medical practitioner if you feel you have a medical problem that needs addressing.