The term gut-brain is a fairly new and growingly popular term. Studies are beginning to reveal a deep connection between gut health and mental function, pointing the way for tremendous revelations about achieving bodily health, especially for cognitive and mental wellness.
So, what is the gut-brain?
The gut-brain refers to the enteric nervous system (or ENS), a lesser known system than the more well-known central nervous system (CNS). We are learning the gut has its own nervous system “consisting of approximately 100 million nerve cells in and around the GI tract” (Michelle Dossett). This intricate structure of neurons extends from the lower esophagus down to the final exit point of your digestive tract, functioning independently of the CNS. In other words, your digestive system has an intelligence of its own, independent from — but connected to — your brain.
For many years, we have assumed that issues of stress, focus, memory, and mental clarity were entirely cognitive and led to digestive disturbances. Emerging research shows it is more likely that mood and cognitive challenges may actually be caused by poor gut health instead. Because the ENS and CNS are intricately connected, constantly communicating back and forth, both must be cared for to achieve good mental health.
Some cool facts about the gut-brain/ENS include the following:
- It can operate independently of the CNS.
- It is referred to as the lower — or secondary — brain.
- The ENS has hundreds of millions of neurons and neurotransmitters that tell the body what to do and how to respond. This is why you feel butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous. It is why the word “hangry” exists along with the advice: “Follow your gut!”
- The ENS plays a part in many of the body’s systems, including the immune, digestive, endocrine, and central nervous systems.
- It is responsible for housing an insanely complex microbiome with billions of microbes responsible for supporting many functions in the body. These healthy bacteria have a calming influence on your body.
- The ENS has been linked to mental health, focus, memory, sleep, mood, motivation, motor skills, blood flow, mucus flow, stress, and anxiety.
- The gut is responsible for producing and storing serotonin. In fact, “gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of the body's supply of serotonin, which influences both mood and GI activity.” (Carpenter)
Researchers are still uncovering the many effects of the ENS on overall health and wellness. It will be exciting to see what discoveries are made and what they will mean for healthcare. In the meantime, this system deserves careful dedication to maintenance and care.
A few tips for supporting this complex system include:
- Diet is at the top of the list. Avoiding junk food and choosing healthy, whole food options instead is critical. There are lots of wholesome foods that help support the gut's microbiome. Eat your food slowly and thoughtfully, chewing properly. Avoid stress eating. Practice deep breathing before eating to help your body get into the “rest and digest” phase, so it’s allowed to produce proper gastric juices for nutrient digestion. Rest after eating. And don’t forget to supplement with probiotics, especially when the body is under stress or has a compromised immune system.
- Get regular exercise and drink plenty of water daily. Implement mindful practices such as meditation, prayer, yoga, breathing exercises, grace towards self and others, and living in the present moment. Applying some or all of these practices will help support the gut-brain connection and improve wellness, and it will also have great results on your overall lifestyle.
Even though the gut-brain connection has not always been fully understood, it is now considered crucial for a highly functioning and healthy body. There are new articles and research topics on this system popping up. Watch for new research as it continues to develop. Remember, when it comes to good health, always trust your gut!