What is Our Second Brain?
Our Second Brain. The human body is absolutely incredible. Every system impacts one another and works together seamlessly to keep us alive and healthy. One such system is the enteric nervous system, also commonly referred to as our “second brain.” This intricate system of nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters helps control our digestive system through the so-called Gut-Brain Axis (GBA) and has a profound impact on our overall health and well-being.
What is the Enteric Nervous System?
The enteric nervous system is located in the gastrointestinal tract, stretching all the way from the esophagus to the anus. It contains a whopping amount of over 100 million neurons, which is more than the spinal cord, and it’s responsible for controlling all aspects of digestion, from the moment that first bite enters your mouth and the movement of food through the system to the secretion of digestive enzymes.
What makes the enteric nervous system unique is that it can operate completely independently of the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. This means that the digestive system can function even if the brain is disconnected from the body. However, the enteric nervous system also communicates closely with the central nervous system, sending crucial signals that can influence mood, behavior, and cognition.
If you’ve ever experienced “butterflies” in your stomach before a date, school exam, or a big event, you’ve felt how these intricate connections work. This is the perfect example of how the enteric nervous system communicates with the brain. The gut and brain are so perplexed, and how they influence one another is so delicate that researchers have begun referring to the enteric nervous system as the “second brain,” which is how it got its popular name.
The Second Brain and the Immune System
One of the most important roles of the enteric nervous system is in the immune system. Incredibly enough, over 70% of the body’s immune cells are located in the gut, and the enteric nervous system helps to regulate their activity. This means that a healthy gut is essential for a healthy immune system and it’s why it’s so important to ensure a healthy gut microbiome.
A gut microbiome is a collection of all of the micronutrients residing in your gut, from bacteria and fungi to parasites and even viruses, and their optimal function is key to staying healthy and protected from infections and diseases. However, not all gut microbes are created equal. The balance of bacteria in the gut has a significant impact on your health, with an imbalance linked to a variety of health issues, from digestive disorders and hormonal fluctuations to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. This is why it’s essential to maintain a healthy gut microbiome, which can be achieved through a healthy and balanced diet, regular weekly exercise, a healthy sleep routine, and stress management.
What Impacts Our Second Brain?
Our enteric nervous system is a complex network of nerves and cells that carry messages between the brain and gut to control all aspects of the body. It can be affected by many factors that can either positively or negatively impact its functioning. Here are some factors that can impact our nervous system:
- Stress – Stress can have a significant impact on our gut-brain axis. When we are under stress, our body releases the stress hormone cortisol as well as other stress hormones that can interfere with the functioning of our nervous system. Chronic stress can also lead to anxiety and depression, which can further exacerbate our entire nervous system dysfunction.
- Diet – Our diet can greatly affect the functioning of our nervous system. A diet that is high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats can lead to inflammation in the body, which can damage nerve cells and interfere with the communication between nerves. A diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats, on the other hand, can provide the vitamins, minerals, and other powerful plant compounds that are necessary for optimal nervous system functioning.
- Sleep – Sleep is essential for the proper functioning of our enteric nervous system. During sleep, the brain consolidates memories, repairs and regenerates cells, flushes out toxins, and stimulates digestion. Chronic sleep deprivation can interfere with these processes and lead to digestive issues, microbiome imbalance, cognitive decline, mood disorders, and other nervous system dysfunctions.
- Exercise: Exercise has numerous benefits for our second brain. It can improve blood flow and oxygenation to the brain, stimulate the growth of new nerve cells, improve digestion, reduce inflammation, and enhance the production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood and cognition. Regular exercise can also protect against age-related cognitive decline and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
- Environmental toxins: Exposure to environmental toxins like heavy metals, pesticides, and pollution can damage nerve cells and interfere with their communication. This can lead to serious digestive issues, poor microbiome health, cognitive decline, mood disorders, and other enteric nervous system dysfunctions.
- Physical Trauma – Physical trauma can have a significant impact on our second brain as accidents and injuries of the abdomen can damage the nerves and disrupt their communication with the brain. Studies have even shown that patients who have undergone major abdominal surgery can experience constipation and digestive problems due to nerve damage caused by the surgery. Additionally, traumatic brain injuries can also affect the enteric nervous system and the damage and disruptions in brain function can affect the communication between the brain and the gut, leading to digestive problems. Physical trauma to the abdomen and the spinal cord can even alter the balance of bacteria in the gut, leading to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria and a decrease in beneficial bacteria. This can lead to inflammation, which can damage nerve cells and disrupt the communication between the gut and the brain.
- Mental Health Disorders – Mental health issues like depression and anxiety can play a big role in the health of your gut microbiome. Studies have shown that individuals with depression, anxiety, and PTSD often have alterations in their gut microbiota, which can lead to changes in the enteric nervous system’s function and contribute to the development of depression symptoms. Additionally, stress, which is a common trigger for depression, can increase the risk of developing digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). There is also evidence to suggest that IBS is more prevalent in individuals with depression, further supporting the link between the two.
How to Support Our Second Brain?
There are several ways to support the health of our second brain, promoting its optimal function, and supporting our overall health and longevity:
- Eat a healthy diet: A diet high in fiber and rich in fruits and vegetables can promote a healthy gut microbiome and support the functioning of our second brain. Additionally, consuming probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut can also be beneficial.
- Supplement with superfoods: Brain-supporting nutrients like superfood fruit and vegetables can support a healthy gut microbiome and boost your immune system function.
- Manage stress: Stress can have a significant impact on the gut-brain axis, so it is important to find ways to manage stress. This can include practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
- Exercise regularly: Regular exercise has been shown to support the health of the enteric nervous system by improving gut motility and reducing inflammation.
- Focus on high-quality sleep: Adequate sleep is essential for the health of our second brain, as it allows the body to repair and restore itself.
- Avoid toxins: Toxins like alcohol and cigarette smoke can have a negative impact on your entire body, especially the gut microbiome, so it is important to avoid these substances as much as possible.
The enteric nervous system, also known as our second brain, is a vital system in the human body that plays a crucial role in our overall health and well-being. It’s often overlooked but deserves our attention, as it’s responsible for everything from digestion to our immune system and even our mood. By caring for our gut health, we can support the enteric nervous system and improve our overall health.