The Shocking Truth About Your Gut and Brain – It’s More Connected Than You Think!

October 15, 2023 6 mins to read
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Hey health enthusiasts! You’ve probably heard of the gut as our “second brain”….As an Integrative Nutrition student, I have a good amount of knowledge on the topic, so In this article I’m going to help you fully “digest” (pun intended) the gut-brain connection. 😉

Our Second Brain

Our amazing gut (digestive system) houses a staggering 200-600 million neurons. When you are born the tissue that becomes your primary brain and gut brain come from the same source! While some wellness gurus tout the digestive tract as our second brain, let’s dig into exactly what that means. Today’s fast-paced, stress-prone life is taking a toll on our health in a variety of ways. A recent survey spanning 24 countries revealed that nearly half of the participants were struggling with disorders such as depression, or anxiety (to name a few), linked to the intricate dance between the gut and the brain. And ladies, seem to be even more affected than men.

This intricate gut-brain relationship is bi-directional (meaning it goes both ways); our brain affects our gut, and vice-versa. Our intestines, arguably the body’s largest endocrine organ, release a medley of signaling molecules, in fact we produce roughly the same amount of neurotransmitters in our gut as we do in our brain! Shocking Right! These messengers can have a profound impact on our mental health and over-all wellbeing.

Our GIT (Gastrointestinal Tract / digestive tract), is sort of like an assembly line, it has to keep moving to stay healthy – if it goes to fast or to slow that is where it has a domino effect of negative health effects. When stress and anxiety levels are high, such as from work or a chronic illness, it can affect optimal intestinal function, leading to that domino effect of gut issues.

So, Is the Gut Truly Our Brain’s Sidekick?

I stumbled upon an interesting article in Science 2019, that highlighted a fascinating fact: gut microbes play a role in the neural and social development in animals. But what I found most astonishing was that: sterile mice, lacking these crucial gut microbes, showed signs of brain anomalies and social issues. When given a dose of these beneficial microbes, they began socializing normally again! Though they still struggled with recognizing familiar pals due to missed early brain developmental cues. The implications of this are clear – not only can gut health affect our brain chemistry and mental health, but that can have implications for our ability to socialize and interact with the world around us.

You’ve probably come across the term “second brain” linked to our digestive system. Sure there are parallels to be drawn between our brain and gut – such as neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine being produced in both – but the brain holds the key to cognition, emotions, learning, and memory, while our gut, though impressive with its independent nervous dynamics, is more of a processing center for all the receptors in our gut secondary to our brain. It’s more a collaborative relationship, than one vs the other.

You could also think of it like a computer…our brain is like the computer motherboard that everything connects to and is processed through, while our gut brain would be more like a USB board that gathers data from the USB ports on the front and back of the computer – it’s essential and it can process data input into it…but it still relies on the brain to function.

A Tale of Two Nervous Systems

Our digestive tract is home to two significant nervous systems: its native gastrointestinal nervous system and the broader sympathetic and parasympathetic systems (you might know the latter as the vagus nerve). While our brain can influence gut functions, the gut reciprocates these messages by sending its feedback, which can shape our thoughts, moods, and actions.

Ever wonder why we’re told to stay calm during a crisis? Part of the reason is that during emergencies, our sympathetic nerves spring into action, diverting energy away from digestion. I mean it makes sense, if were running from a lion, that’s more important for our survival than digesting what’s in our stomach. The problem is that our primitive evolutionary physiology can interpret many things in our modern lifestyle as a threat and activate that “fight or flight system”, when there is no real threat to us. On the flip side, the parasympathetic nerves, active during relaxation, foster a healthy digestive environment.

Rest, Digest, and the Art of Mindful Eating

Confucius gave us some ancient wisdom in his call for silent meals, where he emphasized the importance of focused eating. Fast forward to our modern era, where technology (social media and TV) has taken over our lives, and often our meal times as well – work, school, social media are all to often distractions while eating – we just don’t give our meal time the dedicated time it deserves. And Eating under stress is a recipe for gut distress.

Recent studies underline the power of mindful eating. In a compelling trial, women practicing mindful eating exhibited reduced stress hormone (cortisol) levels. And guess what? Lower cortisol can mean a trimmer waistline. 🎉

I actually experienced this in my own life…I used to be quite the gamer, and pretty much would exclusively eat while gaming or watching movies. What I began to realize recently is that the games I play can put my body in “flight or fight” and therefore I’m not digesting optimally if I play games during or shortly after eating. Instead I should wait until my food is fully digested, and avoid snacks while playing these stressful games. I still do this sometimes with social media and my phone, but I’m getting better.

Mindful Eating in My Practice

Mindful Eating is in my practice a go to suggestion for many of my clients…The fact is our relationship with food is complex, and our habits require effective tools to help retrain, or to develop new healthier habits. This might be for things like eating disorders.

Conclusion

So here’s my slice of wisdom pie: integrating mindful eating into our daily routine may be our best defense against a hose of gut issues. Just drop the distractions: tv, videogames, work, smartphone… and enjoy your food to the fullest. You’ll tase things in a way you never have before, and your gut will thank you.

As always, stay healthy!

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