By Dr. Jane Brewer
The sayings “trust your gut” and “gut feeling” have more clout to them than might appear
on the surface. The connection between your brain and your belly is more than just a figure of speech.
Your nervous system is a complex and intricate network of wires that coordinates every single function
in the body. The digestive system has so many of these wire connections that some researchers
call the gut our second brain. Similar to the USB wires that charge our smartphones and tablets,
the wires in our body provide a source of power as well as an avenue
for information exchange. This network of communication is known as the brain-gut axis.
Your second brain is incredibly smart. This Enteric Nervous System (ENS) that resides in your gut can act autonomously and even influence mood and behavior. While it can’t get your homework done or create works of art like the brain in your skull, your second brain contributes more to your overall health and well-being than you might imagine. The ENS, which extends from the esophagus to the anus:
• Is made up of more than 500 million neurons, as many as the spinal cord itself
• Houses about 70% of our immune system
• Produces 50% of the dopamine and 95% of the serotonin (the “happy chemicals”) in our bodies
Are Two Brains Better Than One?
Having such an intricate network of nerves in our gut might seem like overkill simply to manage the process of digestion, so why does the gut need its own brain? The gut, as it turns out, does far more than just digest your latest meal. The emerging field of neurogastroenterology has done much to illuminate the functions of the enteric nervous system beyond the act of the consumption and elimination of food.
Our guts are home to trillions of bacteria that make up our microbiome, and a major role of the ENS is to communicate back and forth with these cells to influence mood, mental clarity, regulation of inflammation, and immunity, among many other functions. Our emotions are also likely influenced in large part by the nerves in our gut. A perfect example of this is feeling butterflies in our stomach when we’re nervous or excited — the stress response is intimately tied to the ENS.
Much of the communication between our first and second brains occurs over the vagus nerve, a long, wandering nerve that begins in the brainstem and makes its way into your abdomen connecting most major organs along the way. The vagus nerve acts as a bridge between the
brain in your head and the brain in your belly. In the same way that gastrointestinal distress can quickly turn a good mood bad, a happy gut can help to augment everyday emotional well-being. In studies where the vagus nerve is electrically stimulated from an outside source, the response was signals that helped to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.
Taking Care of Your Microbiome Naturally
The importance of taking good care of your gut can’t be understated. Because of the impact it has on how you feel, both physically and mentally, gut health should be on everyone’s radar when it comes to making healthy lifestyle decisions. Since there’s more to a happy belly than choosing the salad over a slice of pepperoni pizza, here are a few tips you can easily incorporate into your day to day routine:
• Address chronic stress in your life. There are many ways to do this, from meditation, to exercise of your choice (walking, yoga, cycling, etc.), to establishing a gratitude practice. We can’t eliminate stress completely, but we can do our best to manage it and focus on the positive.
• Incorporate fermented foods and beverages into your diet. Sauerkraut, yogurt (and yogurt-based drinks like Lassi or Kefir), kimchi, and Kombucha are great resources to nourish your microbiome.
• Take care of your nervous system. Essential fatty acids and B-vitamins provide great support for your nervous system, as well as potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Ensuring a balanced diet of fresh, home cooked meals will give you the nutrients your body needs.
• Get enough sleep. Giving your body ample time each night to recharge and repair is critical. Eliminating artificial light sources and any potential interruptions (sorry, cell phone) will allow you to reap the maximum benefits from bedtime.
• Improve your vagus nerve activity. NeuroStructural Chiropractic looks at vagus nerve function as it relates to the alignment of the uppermost vertebrae in your spine, the atlas. The atlas is situated in close proximity to the vagus nerve as it branches off the brain stem. An abnormal shift of the atlas can interfere with normal vagal activity and communication along the brain-gut axis.
Disturbances in gut health have been linked to many illnesses and conditions beyond what we normally think of, such as autism spectrum disorders, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease. While more research is necessary to establish a clear connection, it is both interesting and promising that there may be a way to influence these conditions naturally through gut and nervous system health. Keeping trillions of microorganisms happy might seem like an impossible feat, but it’s certainly worth it to start feeling happier and healthier.