The Gut-Brain “Second Brain” Connection—Is it more than just a Gut feeling?


The enteric nervous system, The Gut-Brain “Second Brain”, in our bellies goes far beyond just processing the food we eat.

Although its influence is far-reaching, this second brain in the gut is not the seat of any conscious thoughts or decision-making. It draws its influence from the evolutionary processes…the time we were primarily focussed on food, shelter and safety of self and the immediate surrounds. Thousands of years of this programming is NOW being understood by the Western Science. The Easter mystics, science and philosophy has been talking about this Gut-Brain “Second Brain” Connection since time immemorial. 

The new scientific research is throwing up interesting inputs… Some of the scientist agree that the Brain of the Brain in the Gut is way too complicated to be put there for it to be just move out of the colon. Scientists were also shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus nerve, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. 

90% of the serotonin “the feel good chemical” is found in the bowels, 70% of our immune system is aimed at the gut to expel and kill foreign invaders… directly affecting our moods and the immune response – The Gut Brain ‘Second Brain’ Connect.


All throughout life, you tend to either think with your heart or your brain. Some tend to be more on an emotional note while some tend to think more with the head! Not all have the perfect sync between the brain and the heart to helps you think through and make an informed decision. That is when you experience a balanced personality that has a jugalbandi with the right notes.

The above may not be the scientific perspective, but why do we get those butterflies and flutters in the stomach every time you face an interview? Or why does instinct come into play. Think of how instincts work with a fielder in a live match. You all have experienced gut feeling too at some point in life!


You simply feel it…

Next time, be “mindful” of when your tummy “feels” what you are going though. A gut feeling can either make or mar your deal. Yes, the gut can really feel for you.

When the brain is so consistent and your heart is in place—why does gut have so much to do when it comes to making a decision? Well then, the digestive system is no mean thing and there is a sort of second brain in the gut that is changing the way experts have understood the mind, mood, health and even digestion! 

1. Science is gradually advancing on lines never thought of earlier. There have always been thoughts around the gut being sort of like another brain. This is because of the evolutionary needs of human beings including food, procreation and safety of life. Gut can easily be called the Primitive Brain.

2. However, with time, human needs have also seen evolution and more complexities involved. This no longer relegated much importance to the gut brain being in active use. The brain’s pre frontal cortex gradually took over ,enhanced activity monitoring and a heightened job for itself. 

3. With greater desires, more ambition and complex desires in the human mind—the gut was sidelined and all the focus was on the central nervous system. Only of late, with mental health, having become a priority and conversations around the same is no longer being silenced—the correlation of the gut and the main brain is being recognised.

The only obstacle here is the lack of clearer understanding of the gut brain. The research is sparse and initial. Studies and data are limited in terms of access as well as sanction. The crux we are gradually arriving onto is that this primal brain still has immense influence over the workings of our body.


How the Gut Signals the Brain?

1. A healthy functioning of the gut has always seen linkage to a properly functioning central nervous system. The reason is that there are a number of hormones, neuron-transmitters and related immunological factors that are released from the gut. These, in their turns, send relevant signals to the human brain. 

2. According to the American Psychological Association, the bacteria in the gut produce many neuro-chemicals that the main brain uses for regulating the basic physiological functions. These also influence all processers of the mind such as memory, mood and mastering a skill.  These gut bacteria produce around 95 percent of entire supply of serotonin in the body. This hormone clearly influences both gastro-intestinal activity and moods.

3. The transmission is direct or through an autonomic neuron. Studies on mice have revealed that there is a gut-brain axis in place and that it goes on beyond the two systems, far into the pathways for neural, immune and endocrine responses of the human body. Therefore, there is a strong link that has seen establishment between gut health. 

4. This also brings into picture a link between the varied disorders related to the central nervous system. There could emerge issues such as depression-related disorders, anxiety and even autism that have a direct connection with gut health.


Will Treatment Options Change?

Of course, a sad or hurt stomach disables the normal activity or energy levels of the human body, naturally, a healthy gut allows better functioning and more focus on activities. That is why there is so much focus on a happy gut. The link between the gut and the mind is unmistakable. Therefore, the huge popularity of probiotics has led to promotion of good gut health as a sign of good overall health. 

1. Researchers are conducting studies actively on the usage of probiotics for treatment in depressions and anxiety as well as in terms of a therapy that can be used adjunct to common medications.

2. No wonder the gut is also known as the enteric nervous system or the ENS. This signifies a dual layering compromising at least 100 million nerve cells that line the gastrointestinal tract. It starts from the esophagus and ends with the rectum.


The Controls of this Gut Brain

1. While the ENS or the enteric nervous system will never be able to control cognitive and memory related signals for the body, it has immense role to play in controlling digestion in the right way. It is capable of communication with the main human brain though—after it helps control, every task related to digestion. Digestion, as a process, begins with chewing the food to the final breakdown into enzymes that the blood absorbs.

2. This is why when someone experiences gastrointestinal issues such as stomach pain, indigestion, bloating, diarrhea and the like—there is a sudden shift of moods and emotions at once. 

3. For a large number of years, medical practitioners thought that anxiety caused such emotional shifts while someone experiences GI disorders. However, it now seems that the formula maybe in the reverse. 

4. Mood swings and upset mind can be attributed to the signals that the gut shoots to the central; nervous systems, when it itself is stressed. 

5. Since up to 40 percent of the population across USA alone experiences irritable bowel and related symptoms, the findings explain why a number of people feel anxious or depressed while undergoing related problems. Four in every tenth adult undergo gastrointestinal distress of varied type, globally. The University of Gothenburg, Sweden are working on such findings from a study of 73,000 participants from across 33 countries.


How ENS Connects with the Brain?

With this connection between the ENS and the human brain, a huge shift could come to be in terms of treatment options for gastro-intestinal issues. Experts in the treatment of ENS disorders are gradually set to double as counselors who could heal the second brain or the ENS. If, in the near future, there are prescriptions for gut related issues that comprise anti-depressants, it could be because these will help in calming gut nerve cells. This, in no way could be suggestive of a poor mental state in a patient.


Newer Areas Set to Open up

Another interesting area has opened up in the context of gut in the brain and brain inside the head linkage. This is the discovery of any signal that goes on from the gut and affect metabolism of the human body. This, in turn, will help understand the reduction or rise in risks for health issues such as diabetes, immunity and related health issues. 

Understanding this chapter will need researchers to figure out interactions between gut hormones, nerve signals and micro biota. 

The connection between brain and the ENS explains why mind therapies such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and hypnotherapy are effective against related problems of the stomach.  Since both brains interact with each other, psychological treatments are actually targetable on both at the same time.


Psychological Treatment Options for Gut ‘Bowel’ Issues

The mind body therapy and psychological treatment lines effective in trails for improvement of gut health are as follows…

1/3. Hypnotherapy directed at the gut

This treatment line follows hypnotic induction wherein the patient is taken through imagery that suggest their gut visualized as a number of connected tubes having contents that flow very fast through it. This helps improve IBS and related issues.

2/3. Mindfulness Meditation

Based on ancient Indian traditions, this practice helps the patient get aware about the current moment. It also helps accept all sensations that he is experiencing at that moment. This improves irritable bowel symptoms significantly.

3/3. CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

This therapy challenges all negative thoughts and appraisals around the symptoms of gut related issues. The patient feels limited symptoms and perceives less stress, as a result.


Past and Present Concepts around Gut-Brain Axis

1. The ancient Indian culture had seemingly had a thorough understanding of the gut-brain axis. The concepts of enema or colon cleansing, nauli in hatha yoga, specified yoga asana—all rip into the concept of pressure points that are activated in the gut area—that end up in better mental focus and overall feeling of being happy. 

2. In Patanjali Yoga as well, the basis is the gut. Only with nabhi sanyam, yogis tend to get knowledge of the body’s main constituents. Post colon cleansing the traditional way, there has been experience of ESP or extra sensory perception, in takers. The deep-rooted Indian belief that the gut and the brain must be in tune, for overall health and well-being, had been accepted by non-Indian cultures as well. 

3. While you might not be expecting the gut to be the place to look into as the source of depression, back in the 20th CE, George Porter Phillips thought on those lines. His observations around patients at Bethlem Royal Hospital revealed that most of his melancholic patients had gut or bowel-related issues. 

4. Philips believed that these metabolic clogging issues caused the depressions, instead of the other way round. With changes in diet—avoiding meats, and clubbing up probiotics, more than half of his 18 patients saw complete curing.

5. According to Jane Allyson Foster, leading researcher at Canada’s McMaster University says, “There is no debate, in my mind, that microbes influence mental health.” This points to the possibility that practitioners can heal a brain via the belly. There is immense potential in the line of thought and enough to foster a new line of precision medicines and therapeutics. A strong experiment linked to such a theory came from Japan’s Kyushu University in around 2004.

6. The team of reached demonstrated how mice free of any germ—thanks to being raised in sterilized condition—revealed huge fluctuation on ACTH and corticosterone hormones. Both of these hormones reflect on the stress levels. This pointed to the gut bacteria of mice that probably had been dictating their profile in terms of hormone. When these mice were injected with lactobacillus bacteria, the stress response was far less pronounced in terms of response in mice sans any microbe in the gut.

7. A recent paper by Julio Licinio, eminent professor at State University of New York Upstate Medical University reveals how gut micro biota that is impoverished contribute to schizophrenia.


Ensuring a Calm Gut-Brain Axis

Yoga related practices is not a new trend backed by some star or celebrity. Ages old, this is a science always trend and currently sworn on by celebs.  Since the intestines and the brain are constantly exchanging so much via the multiple nerve cells, it is clear that stress changes the way the micro biota behave.

1. When you indulge in deep breathing or meditation, and some, mindful yoga there opens ups lots of scope. It becomes possible to incline towards central axis and thus the intestine is at temporary rest. The brain drivers get a solid break. 

2. The aim with such yoga related practices is to perceive the sensation of pain in the stomach without stiffening up this relaxation via yoga practices helps reset your gut brain axis.

3. With more studies pointing to the benefits of ‘yoga’, it is indeed clear that yoga techniques can have positive impact on the gut and eventually the mind. With the right yoga postures and practice, you tend to bring down the inflammation markers, improve sleep and kick up the immune system. If anxiety is a concern then conscious breathing can help set in calm.

4. Relaxed deep breathing consciously can wake up the hyperactive nervous system that is sympathetic. Mindful breathing can help placement of inhalation on your abdomen. The target remains complete relaxation of the wall in the abdomen and then forward arching the same. While you exhale in this technique, you tend to visualize a windowpane that is fogging up as you breathe through tight lips. 

5. This caused glottis vibration. The vagus nerve thus stands activated. This nerve is the main connection between the brain and the intestines. The latter finds all the lost energy to aid in the process of digestion. The abdomen’s organs seem to relax like a massage makes you feel, and can handle any repeated problems of digestion.


A Miracle of the Kitchen Bowl and Happy Gut

1. In fact, looking to your own kitchen and daily foods from regular home based menus will let you access a wide variety of packs that are gut-friendly. 

2. Forget the fancy Mediterranean and Greek diets, there is so much of gut-friendly stuff staring at you from the thali, that you might be caught by surprise.

3. Fermented batter based foods that are staples across Indian homes (think idli, dosa, dhokla, rawa pancakes) are examples of the same. 

4. Start a healthy morning with such filling treats and calm just your hunger but also that micro biota. 

5. A calmer stomach always leads to better thinking and work performances. You now know how crucial the gut brain axis is!

6. In fact, healthy homemade soups from the Indian kitchen with loads of greens and the orange carrot staring while you eat form a warm bowl—are all gut friendly flavors stuffs that help your stomach stay balanced. The star anise, green cardamom and cinnamon combined with cumin helps the digestion stay in place. 

7. Move over fancy salads and choose to go Indian with some pickle thrown in to your meals. This will ensure that both your mind and stomach are at peace.


The huge importance Indian moms associate with food eaten in balance at the right times now seem so justified. All this- given the impact your gut has on your main nervous system!


Summing Up the Gut-Brain “Second Brain” Connection

Simply put- there are few species of microbes that help in protecting the wall of the gut. Minus this barrier, you might suffer from leaky gut that in turn results in release of cytokines that are pro-inflammatory. While such reactions are vital to ward off infection, such cytokines can lead to lethargy and poor moods. This is why tiredness is an associated symptom of most illnesses. If this continues over a longer term though, it could pave way for depression.


The microbes in the gut influence the way human body metabolises and digest all neurotransmitter precursors such as dopamine and serotonin. The gut flora has communication lines to the main brain via vagus nerve. This in turn has gut receptors that maintain a check on the digestion. Such pathways are not single routed. The brain activity too can influence gut flora. This is why stress enhances inflammation. Science is researching more on a theory that there may be more serotonin ‘feel good’ hormones in the gut lining than in the brain.


Looking Ahead

Research in this domain is further advancing and even commercial companies as well as scientists are engaged in such studies. The ultimate goal of such researchers is to ensure these findings lead to newer lines of treatment for depression. 

The current line of anti-depressants do not work efficiently or equally across all patients. Similarly, a number of therapies too are of the hit-and-miss grade. Therefore, the new gut-brain “brain in the gut” connection seems to offer a promising line that might lead to more appropriation and inclusiveness in mental health treatment.

Aashish Nanda

The information provided on this website is intended for general reading purpose ONLY. Please do not use this information to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition. Please consult a professional, in case you need any advice...

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