We already know that our brain and stomach is connected in some way. When we simply think about eating, our stomach releases enzymes that enable digestion. When we see our crush, we get ‘butterflies’ in our stomach, or when we’re stressed, our stomach ‘is in knots’. This is because our gut can pick up on our emotions. Thus, certain feelings in our brain (whether good or bad), can trigger other feelings in our gut.
You’ve probably heard the term ‘gut feeling’ before, right? Well, recent studies suggest it could be more than just a feeling. Researchers are now saying that we might have a “second brain” – in our gut. In the past few years, health experts have focused a lot on our digestive systems. We used to think that having a nice community of bacteria in our gut, meant that we won’t experience so much digestive problems. Now we know that these bacteria are responsible for much more. They influence not only digestion, but also other areas of our health, and even our mood. But there’s more to our gut that just bacteria: our second brain resides there too!
Lining your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is the enteric nervous system (or ENS). It consists of two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells. As expected, its purpose includes the control digestion, secretion of enzymes, and many more. But why then, do scientists call it the second brain? Well, it cannot control your thoughts directly, but it is in almost constant communication with your main brain. Researchers are now discovering that there is a direct link between the brain and digestive issues, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, or other tummy troubles. While doctors used to think that emotional disorders (like anxiety and depression) lead to stomach trouble, they now think it’s the other way around: that stomach trouble leads to emotional disorders. This is because irritants in the GI tract send messages to your central nervous system, which in turn, affects your mood. So how has this changed treatment?
Understanding the constant communication between your brain and your gut, means both of them could possibly be in need of treatment, should you experience either IBS or say, anxiety. Gastroenterologists can no longer focus on the GI tract only, and would need to consider the effect the one brain has on the ‘other’ brain.
Of course, seeing as we have a living community of bacteria in our gut too, researchers need to look at the system as a whole. Future research will focus on how our nervous system and gut bacteria interact, and how these interactions influence our health.
If you’ve been experiencing a troublesome tummy and could not find any other cause, perhaps it’s time to look at your stress or anxiety levels, as these could be the reason for your discomfort.