Photo courtesy of www.scientificamerican.com
Ever wondered where those butterflies in your stomach come from when anxious, or how you suddenly feel slightly nauseated when you’ve done something you wish you hadn’t? What about the subtle reaction that occurs in your gut when you hear about something devastating, such as a natural disaster, or a friend’s spouse caught cheating? Your stomach’s smarter than you think!
We all know all about the central nervous system, which is comprised of the brain and spinal cord. Most of us have probably heard somewhere that nerve endings send signals up the spine, to the brain, where decisions are made based on many different factors. But how many of us are familiar with the enteric nervous system, which is comprised of billions of nerve endings found in the gut?
The enteric nervous system
The enteric nervous system is strongly related to both the central nervous system, and the overall health of the human body.
Dr. Michael Gershon is one of the first medical doctors to study the field of brain-gut connections in the field of neurogastroenterology. In fact, it was he who invented the term “second brain” in 1996. He explains that “the role of the enteric nervous system is to manage every aspect of digestion, from the esophagus to the stomach, small intestine and colon. The second brain, or little brain, accomplishes all that with the same tools as the big brain, a sophisticated nearly self-contained network of neural circuitry, neurotransmitters and proteins.”
The enteric nervous system makes up a portion of the autonomic nervous system, along with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The main components of the enteric nervous system are the myenteric plexus, which exerts control primarily over digestive tract motility, and the submucous plexus, which is in charge of regulating gastrointestinal blood flow and controlling epithelial cell function. Both are located in the wall of the digestive tract, and extend from the esophagus to the anus.
Keep the health of your gut in an optimal state
In order to promote an environment that is conducive to better brain function, digestive health, and overall wellness, one must place gut health in high priority. Brain-gut interactions are very important, and when gut health is overlooked or blatantly ignored, symptoms synonymous with digestive disorders arise.
“A dysfunction of these brain-gut interactions, favoured by stress, is most likely involved in the pathophysiology of digestive diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome or even inflammatory bowel diseases.”
There are many ways to improve gut health, beginning with what you put in there in the first place. Avoiding foods that are sugary and processed is vital to keeping a healthy gut. Other foods to avoid are animal products, such as meat and dairy. Elimination of these foods (no pun intended!) create an environment that allows brain-gut interactions to occur as seamlessly as possible, because there is no stress due to improper digestion:
“There is a bidirectional relation between the central nervous system and the digestive tract, i.e., the brain-gut axis. Numerous data argue for a dysfunction of the brain-gut axis in the pathophysiology of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).”
Other ways to show your gut some love is to try and remain as stress-free as you can. This might mean paying better attention to your breathing, taking up yoga, going to bed a little earlier, or changing your diet. Whatever it takes, make sure you make a conscious effort to take a load off.
Treat your tummy well! If you want your brain and gut to be able to have a proper conversation, then you have to try and eliminate the white noise. Right? Go love your gut, people!