Do you get “butterflies” when you’re nervous? I’ve come to think of this as a message from your “second brain.”
This second brain also has a life of its own: It can learn things, remember events, and send messages to the brain and body, producing those familiar “gut feelings.” I can shed some new light on these “gut reactions,” and help you keep your digestive system in top shape.
There is a part of your digestive tract called the enteric nervous system. It’s inside the tissue lining your esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon.
This gut brain is a network of neurons, neurotransmitters, and proteins. Your “head” brain and “gut” brain are in constant communication.
The enteric nervous system has a lot to do with your body’s responses to emotions like happiness, anxiety, and sadness. For instance, people suffering from severe depression often digest food poorly, lose their appetite, or eat too much.
For years, doctors observed that chronic anxiety can cause ulcers, nausea, even serious digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and colitis (inflammation of the colon). They blamed the brain for these health problems.
Turns out they were half-right: they just blamed the wrong brain.
In the same way that brain waves change in the presence of neurotransmitters, the “gut” brain has “waves” that can also change.
These “gut” waves are really the smooth muscle contractions that move food slowly along the digestive tract. They speed up or slow down in response to different neurotransmitters, causing changes in digestion like constipation or diarrhea.
The gut is also sensitive to stress hormones like cortisol. That’s why people who suffer from chronic anxiety may also develop diarrhea and cramping (along with those butterflies). And stress signals between the brain and gut affect nerve function in the stomach and esophagus, causing heartburn.
Some brain disorders will churn up the gut as well. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease cause constipation. Even traumatic events can also make the tissues in the gut swell up, leading to colitis.
So the message is clear: Your gut is a lot more complicated than you might think. But there are things you can do to take care of it.
You see, there are naturally occurring organisms that help your gut do its job. These are the beneficial bacteria or microflora that live in your gut. You can feed these friendly organisms by:
- Eating foods that contain fructooligosaccharides (FOS). FOS is a type of starch your body can’t digest. But friendly bacteria love it. Onions, garlic, asparagus and bananas are all excellent sources.
- Taking in glutamine, an amino acid that your immune and digestive systems rely heavily on. Microflora can also use it for fuel. And, they help turn glutamine into glutathione, one of your body’s most powerful antioxidants.¹ Most high-protein foods like beef, chicken, fish and beans will have it. Or you can 1 gram (1,000 mg) of L-glutamine three times a day.
Also, don’t accidentally kill off the friendly bacteria in your gut. Many of the chemicals in pre-packaged foods – as well as artificial sweeteners made with sucralose – are harmful to healthy bacteria. Eat fresh, whole foods instead.
If you need additional good bacteria, choose an organic yogurt or kefir product with as little added sugar as possible, preferably none at all.
A daily probiotic supplement is a great way to boost the healthy bacteria in your gut, too. Look for a probiotic that contains at least one billion CFU – “colony forming units” and a few effective strains like LGG. More strains doesn’t mean a better probiotic.
1. Bergen W. and Wu G. “Intestinal Nitrogen Recycling and Utilization in Health and Disease.” J. Nutr. May 2009 vol. 139 no. 5 821-825