Gut feelings are real. Have you ever thought about why your belly seems to be trying to send important messages to your brain? What’s going on inside our gastrointestinal (GI) system plays a crucial role in our overall quality of life. There’s even a separate control center just for the gut called the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is frequently referred to as the body’s “second brain”. Relying on the same chemicals and cells as the brain, this nerve center’s primary job is to help us digest. This extensive gut regulating network also alerts the brain when something isn’t right.
Your gut and your brain are in a perpetual dialogue.
We’re often told to “trust our gut”. If we do choose to listen to it, our gut can be a reliable guide, sending signals through various methods of communication—like when you strongly sense you’re about to make a bad decision and experience a sharp pain or a knot in your stomach. That’s your gut saying, “stop and think before you act!”
Before we dive into the fascinating inner workings of the GI system, here’s one compelling reason to listen to your gut: In a side-by-side comparison led by a Stanford psychologist, intuitive, gut centric decision making led to superior choices 68 percent of the time, versus a 26 percent success rate for more deliberate, detail-oriented strategies. That’s strong evidence in favor of leaning into emotions-based decisions, especially when the choice to be made is a complex one.
While the feedback loop between the gut and the brain is a built-in tool for optimal health, it can also encode psychological cues.
Have you ever gotten sick from eating something, and then instinctively avoided not just the food, but the place where you ate it? The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute says that’s the gut doing its job. Its researchers are investigating what other implications the connections between the gut microbiome, the enteric nervous system and the central nervous system can have for cognition, mood, and behavior. Other Harvard studies are examining whether issues with body image and eating disorders may influence the likelihood of developing GI problems as adults. Harvard professors have also demonstrated the “relaxation response”, achieved by entering states of deep rest in meditation and yoga, can help relieve symptoms of IBS and inflammatory bowel disease, and other digestive issues.
A few important gut facts:
The gut is home to approximately 100 trillion bacteria, which produce metabolites that have major health consequences and help maintain good health.
The gut is where 70-80 percent of the body’s immune cells are concentrated.
95 percent of all the serotonin in the entire body can be found in the gut.
Mood and satiety are regulated by various neurotransmitters that are located along the gut, which are produced by ~100 million neurons.
Early in life, it’s critical that a strong link between our overall health and wellbeing and a healthy GI tract is formed, setting the stage for us to thrive as we mature. Over the first year after birth, the GI system develops vital biochemical and neurological processes that can be affected by external stimuli. Our environment and our nutrition are among the key factors that influence this development. Studies show that when the gut microbiota is out of balance in infancy, there may be increased risks for GI disorders and other issues (asthma, allergies, obesity, etc.) later in life.
With an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. population experiencing functional bowel problems at some point in their lives, the new findings cited by Hopkins researchers offer an explanation for why people with IBS and other functional bowel problems are disproportionately more likely to develop depression and anxiety. Given the complex network of nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters in the ENS, which extend along the entire digestive tract, it’s easy to understand why gut health has been valued and prioritized throughout history.
Some of the oldest systems of medicine consider digestion to be one of the most important factors in maintaining overall health.
From Ayurveda to Chinese, Tibetan, Egyptian and rainforest culture medicinal traditions, diet is believed to be an essential form of preventative healthcare. Just as food and medicine were synonymous, so were the mind and the body in these ancient healing practices. Many doctors across cultures look to the gut as the source of many dis-eases, likely because the enteric nervous system can operate independently from the brain, the spinal cord, and the central nervous system.
These are two real-world scenarios that might sound familiar of times when your “big” brain and your “second” brain are communicating with each other:
>> You are (or feel you are) in danger.
The fight-flight-freeze response is likely to be activated, which is a response triggered in the central nervous system. Meanwhile, your ENS will respond by slowing down or stopping digestion in order to divert more energy to the (real or perceived) threat.
>> You are afraid to speak in public.
In this instance, the digestive system can either speed up or slow down, resulting in stomach pain, diarrhea, or cramping. GI problems can trigger anxiety and stress, just like exaggerated emotions, excitement, nervousness, or fear can impede digestion.
Inside your intestinal tract are trillions of microorganisms and their genetic material, which collectively comprise the “gut microbiome”.
These bacteria are key players in digestion, as well as the absorption and synthesis of nutrients. Many of us belong to a certain “enterotype” (similar to having a specific blood type), but the bacterial footprint of each person is unique to that individual. One of the many reasons we should all be paying closer attention to our gut is that the range of other processes the gut is involved in—metabolism, immune regulation, brain functions, mood, body weight, etc.—extend far beyond the gut itself.
It’s important to recognize that there’s no “perfect gut health” target because the type and numbers of bacteria varies from person to person. However, inflammation in the gut is often caused by an imbalance that can lead to a range of physical and mental disorders. Scientists estimate that we are actually more bacteria than human, with roughly 40 trillion bacterial cells floating around inside of us, as compared to 30 trillion human cells. The gut microbiome specifically weighs between 2-5 pounds, which is more or less what your brain weighs. Taken together, the microbes in your intestines function like an extra organ in your body, with huge consequences on your total health.
We’re often asked how to manage bloating, which is reportedly experienced on occasion by 10-25 percent of otherwise healthy people. When your belly is bloated, you might not have a distended abdomen, but rather just experience tightness, mild to intense stomach pain, or feel overly full. While primarily a digestive issue, stress, hormones, and underlying medical conditions may have an influence over the frequency and severity of bloating. Often, an excess in intestinal gas is at the root of the problem. The menstrual cycle is another common trigger of temporary bloating.
Here are 7 effective ways to debloat, according to our herbalists:
Note food intolerances. Take note of your body’s response to the things you eat and drink. Consider starting a food diary to catalog how you feel, noticing patterns and connections.
Child’s Pose. This belly soothing stretch can help with digestion. Try the wide-legged version with extra space for your tummy if keeping knees together isn’t comfortable.
Oil + Fats. Avoid consuming highly processed oils (check out our guide to “knowing your oils” here) and fats. Stick to wholesome, unrefined foods as much as possible.
Salt. Regulate your overall salt intake (less is more!) and consume the best quality salt when you do use it. Challenge yourself to try different seasonings like mushroom, ginger, or citrus to enhance flavors without the bloating side effects of too much salt in your diet.
Belly Massage. For a few minutes each day, use the palm of your hand for a gentle belly massage, rolling in large, slow circles. This helps digestion and eases bloating.
Hydration. Many imbalances stem from chronic dehydration. Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day. Use a bottle with measurement lines to keep track if that helps.
Mindful Eating. Minimize distractions at meal times, be present, and chew your food deliberately and completely. Mindful eating may help prevent emotional overeating, and is also known to assist with the absorption of key nutrients.
Probiotics and prebiotics can also be great allies in supporting the gut microbiome. Read on for more about how to use each one to best care for your second brain.
Derived from the Greek phrase ‘pro bios’ (meaning ‘for life’), probiotics are known to promote healthy gut functioning.
These microorganisms are akin to bacteria and yeast, and are celebrated for their ability to improve and maintain a healthy microbiome. The medicinal properties of probiotics range from improving the gastrointestinal system and antihypertensive effects to enhancing the immune system. Probiotics can also reduce serum cholesterol, help prevent cancer, treat IBS-associated diarrhea, and may improve lactose metabolism and other common allergens.
Common foods that contain probiotics include: krauts (kimchi, sauerkraut, etc.), pickles, raw vinegar, raw yogurt, miso (opt for soy-free when possible), and fermented beverages like kombucha, tepache, and kvass. Note: in order to reap the full health benefits of these comestibles, they must be raw and not pasteurized. While probiotics and prebiotics are both supporters of the gut microbiome’s overall health, they are very different and can be consumed together or separately.
Prebiotics can be found in fibrous foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
You can think of prebiotics as the nutritive soil of your GI system. Conversely, probiotics are live microorganisms that improve “good bacteria”. Probiotics then, are more like seeds to enliven the soil and invite the microorganisms in, thereby assisting with metabolism and other essential actions within the microbiome. Consuming a variety of foods, especially including fermented foods in your diet, can provide ample prebiotics and probiotics to support a healthy gut. Most importantly, expose your gut flora to a variety of good bacteria that is aligned with your environment. You can make your own probiotics at home or shop locally to tap into the variety and the season.
The next time you feel “butterflies” in your stomach or a psychic “hit”, remember that this feeling is coming from your second brain, where 50 percent of the body’s dopamine is produced.
The intestines also co-regulate 30 other neurotransmitters that are identical to those found in the brain, which are used by the central nervous system to regulate a variety of critical functions from mood and stress levels to sleep patterns and essential mental processes. If you’re looking to improve digestive quality, check out some of our favorite digestive herbs here and stock up on top sellers from our Detox Collection to have on hand whenever you need a reset!