B's Blogs October 12, 2020

Your second brain’s influence on your mental health

Did you know…

the butterflies in your stomach are an often-overlooked network of neurons lining your gut that is so extensive some scientists have nicknamed it our “second brain”? In fact, your second brain (officially called the enteric nervous system) contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system.

“The second brain informs our state of mind in other more obscure ways, as well. A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut,” says Emeran Mayer professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.). Butterflies in the stomach—signaling in the gut as part of our physiological stress response, Gershon says—is but one example. Although gastrointestinal (GI) turmoil can sour one’s moods, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the brain below to the brain above. For example, electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve—a useful treatment for depression—may mimic these signals, Michal Gershon chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, an expert in the nascent field of neurogastroenterology and author of the 1998 book The Second Brain (HarperCollins).

Given the two brains’ commonalities, other depression treatments that target the mind can unintentionally impact the gut. The enteric nervous system uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and in fact 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels. Because antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) increase serotonin levels, it’s little wonder that meds meant to cause chemical changes in the mind often provoke GI issues as a side effect. Irritable bowel syndrome—which afflicts more than two million Americans—also arises in part from too much serotonin in our entrails, and could perhaps be regarded as a “mental illness” of the second brain.

Also fascinating is anxiety and depression often go hand in hand with GI disorders. And, more research is being done on other diseases connected as well. We know autoimmune disease is directly connected to an imbalance in our gut health as well.

What you can do…

If you are experiencing GI discomfort, and/or are struggling with anxiety, and/or have been diagnosed with depression:

  1. Go see a doctor, and get your labs done. This is the truest way to know what is going on below the surface. Self diagnosing isn’t the way to go here.

  2. Work with a nutritionist, health coach, or your doctor to create a food plan to support balancing your gut health. You will find what works best for you, and your unique needs.

  3. Invite more stretching (yin yoga or a slower flowing yoga), walks, and mindfulness into your routine. These types of activities activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which aid your digestive process.

  4. Eat your dinner earlier so your food has time to digest before going to bed. Going to bed on a full stomach is hard on your digestion, and can stagnate the digestive process. Shoot for 2-3 hours before bedtime.

  5. Turn off your screens (phone, tv, and computer) 1 hour before going to bed. Screens keep your brain busy. The goal is to train your nervous system to relax before going to bed.

  6. Crowd out alcohol. Alcohol interrupts your sleep, creates inflammation, and is very dehydrating. All of these things slow down your digestion.

  7. Meditation can support your digestion by slowing down your nervous system.

When you start adding new behaviors into your life, it is overwhelming where to start. Success happens when you narrow your focus down to one thing that you can do such that by doing it will make everything easier or unnecessary.

Good Luck, and please reach out with questions. To schedule a free 20 minute consultation & learn how health coaching can support you, schedule here