The Second Brain
The main or first brain is found in the head, it sits protected by the bones named ‘the skull’ is the thinking or ‘first brain’. But research that began in the 1950s has found a ‘second brain’ that exists within the digestive system. This ‘second brain’ doesn’t do complex thinking and it does not communicate with every other system and part of the body as the ‘first brain’ does (the brain in the head).
There is, however, communication between the ‘first brain and the ‘second brain’ through a nerve known as the ‘vagus nerve’, giving the ‘second brain’ access to the ‘first brain and visa-versa. For instance, when we experience “butterflies in the stomach” when a stressful experience is expected, this is the ‘first brain’ talking to the ‘second brain’ in the stomach or gut.
Researchers are finding the intuitions on which so many of us base personal and professional decisions, actually originate in the ‘first brain’ when decisions need to be made. A sensation of “butterflies” in the stomach arises because the brain sends a message of anxiety to the gut, which sends messages back to the brain that it is unhappy.
An interesting fact regarding the ‘second brain’ is that it can work independently of the ‘first brain’; if the ‘vagus nerve’ were to be severed, the ‘second brain’ continues doing what it does to keep the digestive system working as it should; needing no connection with the ‘first brain’ to do so. None other of the systems in the body has this ability, they all rely upon input from the ‘first brain’ to tell them what to do and how to do it.
The ‘second brain’ is technically known as the ‘enteric nervous system’ or ENS, and the digestive system has been called ‘a small ecosystem of its own.’
But the ENS does more than to keep the ‘small ecosystem’ that is the digestive system running, it also sends communication and signals to the ‘first brain’ that directly affect feelings of sadness or stress, it can influence memory, learning and decision making.
The ENS manufactures neurotransmitters, including serotonin, that are identical to those in the ‘first brain’, and interestingly, the workings of the digestive system, or what we put into it, has the potential to affect the ‘first brain’ to such a degree, that it can achieve relief from depression; affect emotions, and the potential for changing the effects of autism, one of the most difficult conditions to treat as autism has a huge spectrum and is difficult to diagnose.
Research into the ENS and its effects upon the Human body is in its infancy, but its potential may be life-changing for many people.
We are what we eat is a saying that’s been around for years, but how correct is it?
Scientific research in the field of the ENS has ascertained that what we eat has a direct effect on mood, stress level, behaviour, choices we make, our elation, depression, etc., etc.
ENS does this by turning on production of ‘ghrelin’, a hormone manufactured by the stomach that stimulates hunger in the ‘first brain’. Ghrelin boosts the appeal of food in general, and it specifically ups the reward value of high-fat foods, most likely by turning on dopamine pathways.
If we experience stress, high emotion, then its high fat and energy-dense food we turn to: ready meals, take away, chocolate, crisps, biscuits or cakes. But its these same foods that once they enter the ENS, send messages to the ‘first brain’ that cause the very feelings that make us want high fat and energy-dense food in the first place.
It is a vicious circle of a roundabout that’s not easy to get off! But it is a circle that can be interrupted by understanding what’s happening and why, and making the decision to take control of both the brain in the head and the brain in the gut.
Foods that will enhance the symbiosis of the ‘small ecosystem’ that exists in the ENS are:
Garlic – has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, and does not annoy the guts ENS as some antibiotics do.
- Asparagus – full of good bacteria.
- Beetroot – really good for helping the ENS achieve optimum condition; are nutrient powerhouses and are full of magnesium which modern diets often lack.
- Bananas – a natural antacid, helps to prevent stomach ulcers, are high in potassium which is required for building protein and muscle, breaks down carbohydrates and assists the electrical activity of the heart.
- Apples – highly recommended for the symbiosis of the whole digestive process, full of dietary fibre.
- Sweet potatoes – full of vitamin B6, potassium and iron.
- Live yoghurt – is an anti-biotic, boosts the immune system, high levels of calcium for bones and teeth, and reduces lactose intolerance.
- Sprouting beans and seeds – health benefits include high levels of dietary fibre, Vitamin B complex, digestive enzymes. high levels of antioxidants, and Vitamin C.
- Blueberries, Blackberries, Raspberries, Strawberries and Turmeric fight inflammation and stimulate brain cells.
Maintaining a healthy gut is also quite often a matter of common sense for instance:
- When eating, concentrate on doing just that, don’t text, talk on the phone or watch TV. Don’t eat when you feel stressed as adrenaline interferes with the digestive process. Chew food properly to give the gut a helping hand in processing food eaten. Make eating a pleasure, and enjoy what you are eating, state of mind affects how the digestive system performs.
- Rather than eating three big meals during the day, it’s better for the digestive system to have five smaller meals, and it helps keep blood sugar levels in balance. And don’t skip breakfast, it can be the most important meal of the day as it kick-starts the body into action.
- Avoid processed food, red meat, wheat, sugar, fried foods, coffee and alcohol. Eat fruit for snacks during the day, and raw vegetables keep intact vitamins and minerals as these tend to get lost somewhat during most cooking processes.
- Eat the last meal at least three hours before going to bed.
- Eat and use herbs, a good number of herbs, including ginseng, liquorice, chamomile, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg and parsley to name but a few, can help feed healthy bacteria in the gut and helps to keep unfriendly bacteria down.
- Drink enough water, it hydrates all cells in the body and helps to remove toxins.
For some of us eating well might be a way to improve focus and mood, or perhaps a way to achieve a weight goal. But what we all have is a gut linked directly to our brain by our Enteric Nervous System. The two are so symbiotic that the gut is often called the ‘second brain’. It has up to 2 kg of microbes that largely influence brainpower, and in return, they just want to be fed, well worth thinking about don’t you think?