Did you know that you have a second brain? It weighs about the same as the one that sits in your skull (0.9 kilos) and shares many other similarities with the first brain. For instance, serotonin, which is a vital chemical neurotransmitter thought to be responsible for maintaining our mood, behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, sexual drive and many other vital functions, can be found in both brains. The only difference is that 80-90% of serotonin levels found in the human body is located in the second brain. What is even more remarkable is that the second brain is actually your stomach.
The stomach, so aptly named the ‘second-brain’, is usually associated with the generic responsibilities of digestion, absorption and expelling waste. But it may come as a shock to some that deep down in our GI tract is an intricate network of neurons that line our gut forming a mass of neural tissue similar to that in our brain. Scientists believe that our ‘second brain’, which is filled with an arsenal of neurotransmitters, can partly determine those physiological symptoms caused by nerve-wracking moments.
The enteric system, or the ‘second brain’ is made up of neurons that are found in the walls of the alimentary canal, which is the long tube located in our gut measuring 9 meters long from esophagus to anus. There are approximately 100 million neurons in the enteric system, outnumbering the neurons found in the spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system.
While our second brain is not adept at contemplating thought provoking poetry or analyzing politics, it is still undoubtedly a complex system within itself. The magnitude of neurons mentioned above found in the ‘second brain’ has equipped the gut with its own reflexes and senses, thereby independently controlling the gut from the brain.
As mentioned earlier, our second brain is not responsible for processing philosophy or scrutinizing art work, it does however send signals to our mind regarding such things as emotions and traumas through nerves in our intestines. An example of this would be the sensation of butterflies dancing around in your stomach when you see someone you admire for instance. The butterflies you are feeling are part of a signal system that manifests in your gut as part of a physiological response to stress.
After examining the commonalities between our two brains, it is easy to see why and how our mental health directly affects our gut. Ever wonder why you are warned about possible side effects of depression treatments and drugs you may encounter like nausea and diarrhea? The enteric nervous system, similar to your brain, uses roughly 30 neurotransmitters, and as mentioned earlier, 80-90% of serotonin in found in our gut.
Certain antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are known to increase serotonin levels in the body. This directly causes undesirable side effects in your stomach, thereby causing ‘mental illness’ in the second brain.
Intestinal terra incognita
Deep within the dark chasms of our intestines lies a collective community of trillions of bacteria, which is also known as a gut microbiome. While the idea of having an infestation of bacterial colonies in your GI system may make your skin crawl, these intestinal inhabitants play a number of essential roles in the internal interworking of our health, and in our lives.
They are responsible for a number of functions such as digestion, the management our immune systems and our weight. Astonishingly, scientists are also discovering that these microbes are heavily involved in transmitting signals to the brain, altering our behavior and emotional state, and if off balance due to issues such as over use of antibiotics or irregularities in your intestinal environment, can lead to more unwanted symptoms such as depression and anxiety.
Surprising parallels are being drawn between the bacteria endemic to our gut and the impact this symbiotic relationship has on our stress management and immune system response. Each and every one of us is affected by stress in some shape or form. Whether it is the stress from work, family or shattering your smart phone screen, we all suffer from intestine-twisting pressures brought on my life’s little unfriendly experiences. Further studies are being conducted concerning the potential intestinal bacteria has on bettering our mental health and tackling diseases such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and autism.
As evidence continues to mount, and the gut-brain axis plot thickens, we should begin to question how we can best improve and strengthen the links between the two in order to prevent intestinal and neurological diseases. For starters, nourishing your gut with beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics, is absolutely vital towards creating harmony between this two way street of our two brains. The old saying “you are what you eat” suddenly has a renewed sense of importance as we find out how the food we put in our mouth directly affects, not only our stomach, but our mood and mental health.
As someone who has had her fair share of intestinal bacterial infections, which often led to doctors prescribing intense rounds of antibiotics (sometimes two at a time), I am far too familiar with the side effects these gut flora altering experiences have on mental health.
Upon starting any course of antibiotics I began to feel the immediate emotional inertia brought on by the medication. A fog of depression settled upon me, rolling in and clouding my judgement, and along with this hazy stupor came a sense of listlessness and hopelessness. The most isolating part of these experiences was that I could not reason nor rationalize as to why I felt so crestfallen. This in turn, isolated me from those around me.
Probiotics, I soon came to find, were (and still are) vital during any disruptive time following antibiotics since they do not only destroy bad bacteria, but also eradicate the helpful flora imperative to our quality of life. Once I started healing my gut with probiotics and other helpful ‘guthacks’, I began to feel the waves of malaise and depression recede from my cognitive shores.
So are probiotics the new Prozac in a sense? Feeding and strengthening your intestinal flora may be the new way we can tackle, not only physical ailment, but mental illnesses such as depression. One study published by the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility stated that the probiotic Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 stabilized anxiety-like behavior in mice that had colitis and did so by moderating the vagal pathways with the gut-brain axis. One other study showed that the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus had profound effects on certain parts of the brain including the GABA levels, the inhibitory neurotransmitter that greatly involved in regulating a number of physiological and psychological processes. The probiotic also lowered levels of the stress-induced hormone known as corticosterone, which in turn reduced anxiety and depression in patients undergoing the trials.
A series of experiments conducted on ‘germ-free’ mice that had no microbiome in their intestines, were unable to recognize and intermingle other mice that were around them. These studies were used to demonstrate how valuable microbes in our gut, and in the guts of these mice, may help communicate with the brain and helps us be social and interact with those around us.
Additionally, the mice that lacked good bacteria in their guts were more prone to engage in high risk behavior and as scientists tracked these altered states of gut related actions, they also found that they were accompanied by neurochemical changes in the animal’s brain.
If the ‘germ-free’ mice were exposed to regular mice with microorganisms early on in life, their anti-social behavioral patterns were reversed. Moreover, the scientists found that if the intestines of the germ free mice were colonized and ‘seeded’ with bacteria from a healthy mouse, the animal took on personality traits from the donor.
However, once the mice reached adulthood and were isolated from beneficial germs during the formative stages in their lives, these behavioral tendencies were permanently irreversible even after scientists attempted to colonize the ‘germ free’ mice with microbes.
Along with the bacteria’s significant role in aiding our social skills with those around us, studies have also revealed that the absence or presence of intestinal microbes during infancy, can permanently alter gene expression.
Genetic profiling has enabled scientists to observe how the absence of microorganisms affects genes and pathways that are closely linked to cognitive functions such as memory, motor control and learning, further strengthening the hypothesis that the presence of beneficial bacteria found in your intestines is vital towards social development and behavior. Along with neurological illnesses, those lacking beneficial gut bacteria can also present issues such as asthma, allergies, skin irritations and problems, autoimmune disorders.
While a majority of the research concerning the gut-brain axis is being done on mice primarily due to the fact that we do not have ‘germ free’ human beings willing to be tested on, there have been some successful human trials proving the positive side effects of ‘feeding’ the flora found in your intestines.
One study focused on a group of women who regularly consumed yogurt that contained beneficial bacteria and had improved cognitive function compared to women who did not consume the cultured yogurt. The study further revealed that the women who did not eat the yogurt had decreased activity in two regions of the brain that are responsible for central processing of emotion and sensation: the insular cortex, the part of the brain that is linked to perception, awareness, interpersonal processing and experience and motor control to name just a few. The second region that was affected is called the somatosensory cortex, which is the area responsible for the body’s ability to interoperate a spectrum of sensations.
The idea of harnessing bacteria and conducting microorganism transplants in order to ease the suffering of those struggling with mental malaise may seem farfetched, but everyday intestinal pioneers are discovering the undeniable benefits of beneficial flora and the positive impacts these microbes have on the delicate balance between the gut-brain axis.
Feed and seed your gut
Dietary feeding and ‘reseeding’ are paramount in the battle against good and bad bacteria. And on a personal note, after having endured ongoing treatments for Helicobacter pylori, or most commonly known as H.pylori, a not so friendly strain of bacteria that inhabits the digestive tract of its host and attacks the stomach lining, I can tell you that feeding and fortifying my stomach against an alien invader has proven to be a life altering experience, and a muse to my health.
This specific strain of bacteria resides in over 75% of the world’s population, affecting 3 out of 4 people, so chances are some of you reading this have it. While not everyone who has the bacteria presents with signs of being infected, those of that are symptomatic may experience and present with a number of diseases ranging from peptic ulcers to an inflammatory condition in the stomach called gastritis, to more serious life-threatening conditions like stomach cancer.
H.pylori is highly adapted to living in the harsh acidic environment of our gut, and it is here where this rogue bacteria can wreak havoc on our GI system. It can reduce the acidity in your stomach in order to create a better living space for itself, thereby affecting the pH balance of your stomach.
The word Helicobacter comes from the Greek word ‘Helico’ meaning spiral, and it is this spiral shape of that bacteria that gives it the ability to drill beyond the gut’s protective lining where the bacteria are safely protected by mucus, and by our body’s immune cell. The H.pylori can then interfere with the body’s immune response in order to ensure that it is not destroyed and further proliferate and thrive within us. Following three courses of specifically engineered antibiotic prescriptions called Triple or Quadruple Therapy, probiotics and the right food, I have won the battle against my spiral shaped foe.
Considering that up to 80% of your immune system is located in your intestines, strengthening it should be one of the pillars for optimum health and happiness. One way is by consuming probiotics that can be taken orally. Probiotics are supplements made of living bacteria and yeast, and as stated early, they are one of the cardinal tools for improving your digestive and mental health.
Probiotics can also be found in certain types of foods such as fermented foods (unpasteurized traditionally prepared are the most effective). A number of these foods include: Kefir (fermented grass fed organic milk), lassi (an Indian yogurt), pickled or fermented cabbage and vegetables and my favorite, kombucha (fermented tea). There are many delicious ways to culture and reestablish beneficial microbes in your gut, by simply exploring the menu, you can find your most palatable route of dietary adventure.
One of the more powerful and healing tools to have in your gut army is bone broth. “Good broth will resurrect the dead,” so goes a South American proverb. This is something I have come to swear by and have watched my body flourish in the reflective golden brown savory pools of soup that I gladly sip on every day. Broth has remained a cure-all for centuries and has been used for a number of natural remedies from reducing inflammation, improving hair and skin, boosting the detoxification process in the body, combating respiratory illness and improving joint health.
Known as nature’s multivitamin, broth is packed with a number of nutrients ranging from nineteen essential and non-essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), collagen, gelatin, mineral and electrolytes and many other nourishing compounds.
One other benefit of bone broth is that it is highly valuable towards strengthening and improving your gut health. The gelatin and collagen found in broth works together as a healing elixir towards improving and reinforcing lining of your gut, which in today’s malnourished and stressful lifestyle has taken the blow.
Broth not only strengthens the lining of your gut, but helps battle food intolerances, allowing for the gut to heal from damages caused by daily stressors, processed foods, medication, unwelcomed bacterial or viral guests and other unhealthy lifestyle choices. Because bone broth is so easily absorbed and digested by the body, it is able to completely utilize all of the nutrients, thereby allowing for complete absorption.
During the nineteenth and twentieth century, scientists believed that our guts were responsible for determining our overall mental and physical state. They extrapolated that the toxic accumulating of waste found in our colons were primarily responsible for triggering illnesses linked to a term they phrased as “auto-intoxication”. These early intestinal explores rationalized that gut released harmful poisons into the body, thereby creating and leading to severe imbalances and diseases. This condition was then treated by either administering unpleasant colonic purges or bowel surgeries. Fortunately for us however, these practices were proven to be nothing but pseudoscience.
But were these nineteenth century scientists and scholars onto something? Studies have continued to emerge, mapping the unchartered fascinating waters of the gut-brain axis, and have gone so far as to say that improving our intestinal health could mean preventing mentally debilitating disorders and illnesses and improve the lives of millions up people. But until that day comes, I will leave you with this last deliciously simple morsel. Go with your gut.