Pay attention to your gut instincts
Tawnya Ritco, RHN
Did you know you have two brains? Our gastrointestinal tract has been dubbed our "second brain" because it contains 500 million nerve cells! Find out how to keep our amazing gut healthy.
Modern gastroenterology suggests our “gut instinct” stems from the 500 million neurons contained in the gastrointestinal tract, in the network of nerves contained in the walls of everything from our esophagus to our stomach and intestines. That network—the enteric nervous system (ENS)—is what’s known as the “second brain.” And for good reason. The ENS is the body’s second-largest concentration of nerves behind only the brain (and ahead of the spinal column). In fact, there are 30 to 40 percent as many neurotransmitters identified in the gastrointestinal tract as there are in the brain.
The ENS controls digestion, including everything from the biomechanics of the stomach and intestines to the alkalinity that allows digestive enzymes to work effectively. By producing 95 percent of the serotonin found in the body, this “second brain” does much to govern how we react to environmental stress. As a regulator of aging, learning, and memory, along with many organ functions and growth factors, serotonin affects our overall physical and mental well-being.
The ENS also produces as much dopamine as the brain—important for everything from motivation to motor control and the production of other key hormones. Working with the brain or independently, the ENS plays a strong role in supporting the healthy functioning of the body.
The connection between the ENS and the brain is yet another reason why nutrition is so important: the healthier the digestive system, the healthier the body. More specifically, the healthier the epithelial tissue in the walls of the GI tract, the better it will protect the nervous and circulatory systems from bacteria and viruses. The healthier the digestive system, the more likely the ENS will function optimally.
Consuming fewer processed foods and eating more plant-based foods reduces the stress on our digestive system (and, by extension, the ENS). Hydration is also important, as is relaxation prior to and during meals.
The medicinal mushroom lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus)—associated with optimal nerve health—may also assist in the proper functioning of the ENS and the way it communicates with the brain.
Nutritional supplements known to enhance tissue health are another avenue toward good digestion: by optimizing the integrity of the epithelial lining of the GI tract.
Everything from mood to decision-making can be affected when the GI tract is inflamed or otherwise under duress. Making the right decisions around healthy eating is one of the surest ways to sustain balance and good choices in every other facet of our lives.