Your 'Second Brain': How Your Gut Impacts Your Health

| Well Being

It turns out your “gut instinct” may be smarter than you think. Scientists have nicknamed the gut as our “second brain” because it contains neurons that affect the way you eat, think and feel. Having a healthy belly may contribute to your overall mental and physical health, so it’s important to keep it as sharp and active as the brain in your skull.

second brain
(Photo: Brim Hall)

The gut is controlled by the enteric nervous system which is made of a network of neurons, stretching from your esophagus to your rectum. The primary function of this system is to handle the messy business of digestion, moving food through your body to nourish it and dispose of waste as well as keeping the pH and chemical makeup of the gut stable. But with such a plethora of neurons in the second brain, it also takes on other jobs to keep your body and mind healthy.

Ninety percent of the signals passed in your body go from the gut to brain, so ignoring your "gut reactions" can actually increase stress. The enteric nervous system is also autonomous, meaning that it doesn’t need to have a connection to your brain to continue "thinking" or digesting food properly.

Your second brain is, in many ways, similar to the one in your head. It is made of neurons, produces hormones and shares around 40 of the same type of neurotransmitters. Your gut is known to produce the same amount of dopamine as does your head, serving as a transmitter to coordinate the contractions in your colon during digestion.

Between 90-95 percent of all serotonin in your body is found in your gut. But because it begins in your brain, nearly all of your brain cells are influenced by serotonin as it travels to your bowels. This includes the cells that affect your mood, appetite, sleep, memory and more. In your gut, serotonin enters your bloodstream and repairs liver and lung cells. It also supports bone formations to regulate bone density. But some medications, including antidepressants, increase serotonin levels and create chemical changes in the body, ultimately affecting your intestines and causing gut issues. It's also no surprise that IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) is partly caused by too much serotonin in the gut. (via Scientific American)

woman holding brain

Ideally, your gut contains about eight pounds of beneficial bacteria or probiotics, but these can be destroyed by sugar, stress, antibiotics, steroids or stomach illnesses. If these probiotics in your intestines aren’t stable, it can negatively affect your central nervous system. Depriving your body of these helpful bacteria leads to increased feelings of anxiety and stress.

>> Read more: Does Gut Bacteria Cause Weight Gain?

Medical Daily notes that the bacteria in our gut are influenced by what we eat, our genes, age, stress levels, and even our geographic location. This healthy bacteria is necessary for your body and, depending on what you eat, they can influence our behavior, mood and stress.

To stimulate the growth of gut bacteria, eat high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables and nuts, as well as fermented foods like yogurt or apple cider vinegar. These gut-healthy foods can relieve anxiety and reduce cortisol to help you pay attention to positive information, according to a 2011 study. While many researchers believed that decreased stress would lead to better digestive health, it's now being discovered that stabilizing your gut's processes can actually lead to feelings of less stress.