The Gut Brain Connection
Have you ever had butterflies in your stomach? Or craved comforting sweet foods when you’re feeling down?
These feelings come from one of the coolest connections in our body – the gut/brain connection. This connection between our gut (or abdomen) and our brain is at the forefront of science today and we’re only at the very beginning of understanding it.
And what we’ve found out so far is totally amazing!
What is the Second Brain?
Digesting our food is A LOT of work! A HUGE amount of energy and brainpower is needed to break our food down into individual components so it can be absorbed and assimilated into our body. It’s so much work that our brain needed to outsource it.
Surrounding our gut is a vast network of brain cells (neurons). It’s the biggest concentration of neurons outside of our brain, which means there are more neurons around our gut then we have in our spine!
This is a well-organized network of neurons and it even produces its own chemical messengers, neurotransmitters. This is the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) and many refer to it as “the second brain”.
Once food leaves our stomach and heads to the small intestine, our brain outsources all of its digestion duties to the ENS. Our second brain completely takes over and does the heavy lifting of digestion. It controls all of the precise and intricate jobs of the small intestine and colon so that all of our food is digested fully.
Our vagus nerve is the superhighway for information running between the brain and other organs. Our ENS uses the vagus nerve to send tons of information about the digestive process to our brain. Actually, our ENS sends MUCH more information to our brain than vice versa. The ENS works quite independently.
Why do we have gut feelings?
Our second brain has many of the same capabilities as our primary brain. Serotonin, dopamine, and other important neurotransmitters are moving between cells in our gut to keep the ENS working smoothly. These neurotransmitters are also activated when we feel intense emotion.
Kids can feel gut feelings very strongly sometimes, although we all can feel them no matter how old we are. To a kid, feeling nervous can feel like a stomachache or they might feel too nauseous to eat.
As adults, we more often connect them to “gut instincts”. A feeling about something that doesn’t quite feel rational…but we know it’s right. This is your ENS talking. Our big brain is great at analytical thinking and our ENS is great at what we think of as intuitive or emotional thinking.
It's all about our gut bacteria.
Our microbiome, the rainforest-like community of bacteria in our gut, plays a very important role in how our ENS works. It may even play an important role in how we think, feel, and act. Our gut bacteria might be connected with our personality!
It’s our microbiome that plays an important role in balancing our neurotransmitters. In animal studies, germ-free mice were found to make 50% less serotonin than their bacteria-filled cousins and their serotonin levels shot right back up to normal once their gut got colonized.
It’s been found in humans as well! Researchers have found a significant correlation between the digestive disorder IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and mental health issues. About 60% of people with IBS also have symptoms of a psychiatric disorder, according to Edward Blanchard, Ph.D., prof of psychology.
What I find the most interesting is how our microbiome affects our personality. When adventurous mice were given the microbiome of timid mice, they quickly became timid too. The flipside was true as well, the timid mice became adventurous when given bacteria from their adventurous friends.
To study this in humans, researchers took advantage of the easy access we have to the microbiome of toddlers (through their diapers) and looked to see if there were any correlations between their behaviour and their microbiome. They found that toddlers with the most diverse microbiomes, one that was more like a rainforest than a desert, had the most positive behavioural attributes.
The research on how our gut bacteria affect how we think, feel, and act is very new but it’s clear that there is a link. Many mental health professionals are looking at our microbiome as the next frontier to find treatments for difficult and complex mental health issues.
In the meantime, we can be extra kind to our gut bacteria by seeding it with good-quality probiotic supplements and feeding it with lots of plant-based fibre and fermented foods. The quality of our diet determines the balance of our microbiome, so go out and enjoy some veggies and a gulp of kefir!
Written by Lisa Kilgour, R.H.N.
Lisa Kilgour is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and a sought after speaker, educator and author who helps people heal from diverse and complex health issues. Her upcoming book, Undieting, will be hitting the shelves Fall 2020.
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