What You Need to Know About the Mind-Gut Connection

Have you ever had a “gut feeling” that helped you out in the long run? Or have you ever felt “butterflies in your stomach” when you're anxious?

You may think these feelings are products of your brain. However, research has found these to be phenomenons of the gut itself - often referred to as our second brain [1].

Around the area of our stomach sits our enteric nervous system (ENS). This system may be nothing more than two thin layers but is responsible for 100 million nerve cells lining our gastrointestinal tract - starting at the esophagus and ending at the rectum [2].

The responsibility of our ENS is essential to understanding medicines as it’s linked to our:

  • Digestion

  • Health

  • Mood

  • Thought patterns

This blog seeks to teach you everything you need to know about your second brain and what you can do to make it healthier.

How the Mind-Gut Connection Works

Our brains are expansive networks that go beyond our understanding. In fact, just in a single second, it retrieves over 400 billion bits of information [3].

Yet, our consciousness isn’t capable of processing this vast network. Due to these limitations, we’re only revealed 2,000 bits of that 400 billion (or 1 bit of information for every 200 million bits).

So, to simplify a portion of these bits, the brain sends signals to the enteric nervous system (or vice versa). In effect, we don’t have to consciously think about things such as when we’re hungry or when we need to use the bathroom.

However, the significance of our second brain goes beyond instinctual necessities. Sometimes, it allows us to make decisions that can ultimately change the world.

The Importance of the Mind-Gut Connection

When it comes to going off a gut feeling, there is no better story than that of former lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, Stanislav Petrov.

During the midsts of the Cold War, Petrov was stationed at the command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system. On September 26th 1983, he received a report from the warning system that the United States had launched a nuclear missile. This was followed by five more missile warnings [4].

Though it was Petrov’s protocol to inform the Soviet Union of such a warning, his gut feeling told him these warnings were false alarms. Not only was he right, but if he hadn’t gone with that gut feeling and did as he was ordered, a full on nuclear attack against the United States would have ensued.

Petrov is now accredited as “the man who saved the world”.

Many of us too go through situations where our mind-gut connection can help to save us. When we get a worried-feeling within our stomachs - almost to the point of nauseousness - we may just be preventing negative things from happening to us.

For example, when we’re driving down a crowded highway at high speeds, we often must be aware of all our surroundings. Sometimes, we get the notion that someone is about to make a quick merge even when they don’t use a blinker. More so, sometimes we give in to that impulse and make room for the quick merge to happen.

The notion of this seemingly unpredictable merging is our gut-feeling allowing us to make a prediction. And, in many ways, our second brain allows us to predict the immediate future.

What Does the Research Say?

Since scientists have only recently developed an understanding for the mind-gut connection, there’s still a lot of research seeking out an answer. However, they have found one aspect of our second brains that is quite remarkable.

Our enteric nervous system is responsible for up to 95% of our serotonin production [5]. Though researchers are still looking into how serotonin and the mind-gut connection work, we do know that lower levels of serotonin can cause painful physical effects.

For example, researchers found that many people with depression also suffered from:

  • Bloating

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Stomach pain

    Research is now pointing to the idea that our body’s physical problems may be linked to certain mental illnesses. Jay Pasrich, M.D., director of Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology explains the importance of this discovery [6]:

“For decades, researchers and doctors thought anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around. These new findings may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS [irritable bowel syndrome] and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety. That’s important, because up to 30 to 40 percent of the population has functional bowel problems at some point.”

Bettering the Health of Your Second Brain

With so much importance being placed on the second brain, it’s only natural we want to make sure it’s as healthy as possible.

But what can we do to nourish it?

Researchers are still looking into this phenomenon. In fact, many scientists are even developing medicines that target our enteric nervous system for the sake of treating mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

However, with the knowledge we currently have, there’s isn’t a clear-cut way to nourishing our second brains.

Instead, we should go with what’s already known - people who eat healthier and exercise regularly tend to live out happier lives. Though more research is necessary to fully confirm this, a balanced diet and regular body movement may be all that’s necessary to keep the second brain healthy.

And a healthy second brain holds a lot of potential to wholesome mental health.

Reference Sources

[1] HHS Public Access: Gut feelings: the emerging biology of gut-brain communication

[2] NCBI: The enteric nervous system and gastrointestinal innervation: integrated local and central control

[3] National Science Foundation: Unlocking the Secrets and Powers of the Brain

[4] Stanford: 1983 Nuclear False Alarm

[5] NCBI: Effect of serotonin depletion on the neuronal, endocrine and behavioural responses to corticotropin-releasing factor in the rat.

[6] Johns Hopkins Medicine: The Brain-Gut Connection