Ever “gone with your gut instinct” or had felt “gut-wrenching anxiety” when you’ve been nervous? You may be getting information from your “second brain.” The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is like a second brain in your gut. That main role of the ENS is to control digestion. Our guts consist of all of the organs that process, digest and eliminate food. The ENS is the lining of that gut. Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology says “The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain—with profound results.” Our brain can directly affect our stomachs and our stomachs can also affect our brain, meaning, this communication goes both ways. For example, just the thought of food can cause our stomach to begin releasing acids for digestion.
This adjusts thinking on several levels, does our brain health affect our gut health or can our gut health affect our brain health? Perhaps therapies that help our brain, can also help our gut health. More specifically, altering the bacteria in our guts could affect our brain health. Research shows that changes in the microbiome of our gut can cause symptoms that look like anxiety, depression and even Parkinson’s Disease (Mussell, et al., 2008). Results suggest that patients presenting with GI problems should be screened for anxiety and depression. Similar research shows that individuals with anxiety and depression often experience changes in the gut microbiome due to high levels of stress (Posserud et al., 2004). The gut microbiome are the bacteria, viruses and fungi that all live in the gut. Stress can physically affect the physiology of the gut, in fact, stress and the hormones produced by stress, can influence the movement and contractions of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Given the knowledge of these connections, it makes sense that we can experience GI symptoms from stress.
Research on the link between gut and brain health is still relatively new and there is still a lot to learn. Scientists have learned about prebiotics and probiotics that can specifically change brain health. Specifically, omega-3 fatty foods, foods that are fermented or high-fiber foods can be beneficial to brain health. There are millions of nerves connecting the brain to the gut and this communication goes both ways. It will be exciting to see what researchers come up with to combat mental illness using this gut-brain connection knowledge.
Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). The gut-brain connection – Harvard Health. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection
Mussell, M., Kroenke, K., Spitzer, R. L., Williams, J. B. W., Herzog, W., & Löwe, B. (2008). Gastrointestinal symptoms in primary care: Prevalence and association with depression and anxiety. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 64(6), 605-612. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2008.02.019
Posserud I, Agerforz P, Ekman R, Björnsson ES, Abrahamsson H, Simrén M. Altered visceral perceptual and neuroendocrine response in patients with irritable bowel syndrome during mental stress. (2004). Gut. Aug 1;53(8):1102-8. https://gut.bmj.com/content/53/8/1102
The Brain-Gut Connection. (n.d.). Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_body/the-brain-gut-connection