The Gut-Brain Connection
Describing having a gut feeling about something, butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous or a gut-wrenching experience is commonplace. However, research now suggests that this isn’t just a product of our imagination. There are complex connections between the area of the body we call the gut and the brain, the seat of intellect, personality and emotions. The gut-brain connection is very real indeed. Recent discoveries even suggest that the gut has an intelligence of its own, separate entirely from that found in the brain.
Gut intelligence is referred to by medical professionals as the enteric nervous system (ENS) – our second brain.
Professor Michael Gershon is the author of ‘The Second Brain’. He is also the chairman of the department of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia University, United States. He is known in the medical world as ‘the father of neurogastroenterology’. This is due to his 30-year scientific career centred around studying the attitude and behaviour of the human gut. He states that our digestive system has its own cerebral activity and intelligence.
This revelation isn’t as surprising as it first sounds when you learn that the total number of neurons in the small intestine is around a hundred million. This is a considerably higher number of neurons than found in the spinal cord. We often think of neurons as only found in the brain. Now we know this isn’t the case at all.
The Gut-Brain and Neurotransmitters
The gut-brain is also the main system responsible for the production and storage of chemicals known as neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine, dopamine and serotonin. These substances are responsible for our moods, emotions and psychological well-being. Gershon reveals 90 percent of the famous ‘happiness hormone’, serotonin is produced and stored in the intestinal walls.
Gershon’s research suggests that the communication between the brain and our ENS – the second brain – is a constant two-way system. There is evidence that not only do our moods affect our digestive process, but our digestive health also affects our moods.
This information explains why stress, tension and over-work often result in exhaustion and digestive upsets. The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines. In return, a troubled intestine can send signals to the brain that cause anxiety, stress or depression.
An emotional upheaval, shock or intense fear can make you vomit, have diarrhoea or indigestion.
A low mood can influence your metabolism, appetite and the digestive process
Chronic unhappiness can lead to problems with food and binge/comfort eating
Care of the complex and delicate systems in your gut can have huge neurological and hormonal benefits.
Eastern Medicine and the Gut-Brain
Western medicine centres around treating symptoms. But, Eastern philosophies have long recognised the importance of this ‘second brain’ and look to treat conditions holistically.
For example, traditional Chinese Medicine recognises the gut as ‘dantian‘. Energy known as qi is stored here. The system teaches that qi is responsible for energy and has a part to play in overall mental and physical health.
The Hindu tradition of healing tells us the third of the seven chakras are located around the area of the intestines. This area is the focus of healing for self-esteem, sense of purpose, personal identity, individual will, digestion and metabolism.
In light of growing knowledge about the gut-brain connection, it makes sense to consider our gut health when addressing emotional issues. Likewise, we need to consider emotional issues when dealing with digestive health.
We have the solutions to our emotional problems already inside us – a staggering thought!
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