Our second brain
A concept that has become very popular and one of the reasons why nutrition is key for you to lead a happy and healthy life is that your gut is your second brain. This is because, you have a vast nervous system in your gut called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) that is able to operate independently from your brain. The gut is the place in your body where food is broken-down, metabolised and nutrients are absorbed to provide the body with energy. It refers to all the organs of the gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus, stomach, intestines large and small and all the way down to your rectum.
Contrary to the brain which, is a lump of neurons, the second brain is more like a mesh of neurons all along the gut. The walls of your digestive tract are infiltrated by millions of neurons that contribute to the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). These neurons were found to fire synchronised electrical charges that cause gut contractions. These contractions are what help the food you eat move through your digestive system and waste out of your body (to defecate). Nevertheless, the digestive and nervous systems are closely intertwined: science talks about a brain-gut connexion that is becoming more and more concrete. In fact, it is in the gut that the brain's neurotransmitters or your feel-good chemicals such as serotonin are synthesised. Therefore, if there are any signs of dysregulation in your gut such as diarrhoea or constipation, it is only natural that it will affect the neurotransmitters level and hence your mood. You see, the brain and the gut are two distinct systems but they are dependent on each other.
Have you ever noticed this connection? How having digestive problems can make you feel irritated or down? And how, when you are very stressed you feel “knots” in your stomach?
This is why, keeping your bowels moving as well as nurturing a healthy gut, has become so important to overall health. You don’t want the Enteric Nervous System to become unbalanced or your gut to be outgrown by bad bacteria (also known as dysbiosis). This brings me to my second point which is about your gut microbiome or, the “environment" of your gut, if you like.
Your gut is inhabited by a rich and diverse population of bacteria and other microorganisms such as fungi and viruses. Your gut alone contains tens of trillions of microorganisms, 35,000 different strains of bacteria and about 10 times more bacteria than human cells throughout the body! The majority are found in the large intestine, particularly in the colon. Just like a soil is richer the more strains of bacteria it contains, the same happens with your gut. Nevertheless, you want to nurture the good bacteria as much as possible as these are the ones that protect your immune system and contribute to the healthy functioning of your body.
So, what affects the gut microbiome?
Genetics, in particular the microbiome of your mother
The way you were conceived! Studies have found that babies born via C-section are exposed to different strains of bacteria as compared to babies born vaginally. A natural birth will contribute to a “richer" gut microbiome.
Breastfeeding in infancy as this is the vehicle through which babies are exposed to more beneficial bacteria from their mother.
Antibiotics because they destroy bad but also good bacteria in your body. Therefore, they should be used wisely and you should focus on rebuilding your gut microbiota after a treatment.
Environment and food: these can either support your health or lead to inflammation, increasing the risk for disease. Emotional trauma, stress, high carbohydrate diets or high sugar intakes for instance will contribute to inflammation in your body.
Many of these factors we might not be able to control or change anymore but reducing diet and environment irritants is certainly to everyone’s reach. This is where nutrition and mental health come into play! We know for a fact that we get sick or contract disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or “leaky gut” if our gut has been imbalanced for a long time leading to chronic low-level inflammation and a weaker immune system. This is why we should look at health in a holistic way. Lets consider our example of IBS: because of the brain-gut connexion, IBS symptoms might arise with chronic stress, with long-term bad functioning of your bowels and thus the food you intake or simply because of the environment of your gut.
Therefore, here are a few holistic ways you can support your second brain's health:
Your diet: you can chose healthy foods with natural pro and prebiotics. For people suffering from chronic disorders such as IBS they should get personalised advice as their system responds in a different way.
Reduce stress by exercising, meditating or deep breathing
Exercise to stimulate your feel good hormones and to help move your bowels
Be positive as negative thinking contributes not only to wrong food choices but also to more stress.
Be conscious of what is good for YOU, your bioindividuality. Each person is different and this is why there are no recipes when it comes to the correct diet to adopt. Therefore, learn to listen to your body and eat what works for you.
I hope this article will incentivise you to take better care of your second brain by learning to pay more attention to its signs and to what you eat as this will also impact your brain performance and mood. It is an intricate and complex system but it is worth taking some time to understand it because everything is connected and it will empower you to become more healthy and happy in the long-term.