Would you be surprised to learn that you actually have two brains? One is the brain inside of your head, but the location of the other may come as a surprise: the gut. Although not a brain in the technical sense of the word, your gut is home to millions of neurons. These form rich connections with your brain and may powerfully affect how you experience the world, including anxiety and emotion.
What Is the Enteric Nervous System?
Scientists have dubbed this “second brain” the enteric nervous system (“enteric” refers to the gut). The enteric nervous system, or ENS, is comprised of more than 100 million neurons. These nervous system cells form two small layers that line the entire digestive system, from your esophagus to the rectum.
It makes sense that the gastrointestinal system would need plenty of neurons to function. These neurons provide information about fullness and movement of food through the digestive tract. In fact, the ENS operates on its own to regulate digestive functioning, meaning that the brain in your head does not need to help with digestion. However, scientists think that it is unlikely that a complex nervous system would evolve in the gut for the sole purpose of digestive regulation. Now, new research reveals that the ENS plays an important role in how we experience our world.
The Brain-Gut Connection: How Gut Health Impacts Emotions and Anxiety
While the neurons in the ENS talk to one another to regulate digestion, they also have dense connections with the brain. When studying the action of the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the gut, scientists were surprised to find that 90% of its activity was transmitting impulses from the digestive tract up to the brain. Relatively few messages were transmitted in the opposite direction.
The ENS shares a similar structure to the actual brain. Its neurons release similar signaling chemicals as those found in the brain. For example, 90% of the body’s serotonin is used in the gut, along with approximately half of its dopamine. These two neurotransmitters are important regulators of emotions, and having too little dopamine or serotonin in the brain is associated with depressed mood. It is not yet clear how fluctuating levels of these chemicals in the gut may affect emotional functioning.
Researchers have found that the gastrointestinal system sends messages to the brain that precede mood changes. Many people assume that feeling anxious or stressed causes an upset stomach. In fact, it may be the other way around. Diarrhea, stomach pain, bloating, or an upset stomach may trigger the brain to release signals associated with stress or anxiety. Thus, the gut may actually be controlling our emotional responses to the stimuli around us.
The gut also contains another secret that may explain its connection to emotional health. Billions of bacteria live in the gut. These microbes may influence the organization of the brain during development, making some people more prone to anxiety or emotional distress. For example, children with a limited array of gut bacteria are less likely to be social, positive, and curious about the world around them.
Treating the Gut to Alleviate Anxiety and Emotional Distress
This new research about the gut-brain connection is tremendously helpful to professionals involved in treating anxiety and negative emotions. It suggests that for individuals with anxiety, depression, or other emotional dysregulation, treating the gut may be an important way to alleviate symptoms. With 30 to 40 percent of the population experiencing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or functional bowel disorders at some point, these new findings may explain why so many of these patients develop depression or anxiety. The research opens doors for treatment of functional bowel disorders and point to the potential effectiveness of antidepressants or cognitive-behavioral therapy.
This gut-brain connection is why a holistic approach following opiate detox treatment, including individual physical assessment, is so important. Many people turn to opiate use because the drugs help them manage sadness, anxiety, stress, or low self-esteem. Following detox, they need to learn new coping strategies to deal with these emotions. Treating gut health may support people during this post-detox journey. For example, eating regular meals that are nutritionally balanced can restore strong gut functioning and repopulate the digestive system with healthy bacteria. Interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy and medical hypnotherapy have also been effective in alleviating symptoms of bowel disorder. Treating the digestive system may have reverberating effects on the gut’s ability to soothe the brain and prevent emotional distress.
At the Waismann Method, we believe in supporting gut health as part of an all-encompassing medical approach to opiate detoxification and recovery. Focusing on gut health may hold the key to a balanced mental life.
The Brain-Gut Connection. John Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved on January 27, 2016.
Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being. Scientific American. Retrieved on January 27, 2016.
The tantalizing links between gut microbes and the brain. Nature.com. Retrieved on January 27, 2016.
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