Keeping one brain focused and productive may seem impossible … so imagine if you had two brains.
Scientists now believe we do — and this could be the crux of better health.
The gut contains more neurons than the spinal cord or peripheral nervous system.
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Identification of the enteric nervous system (ENS) is the key. It’s a complex system of nerves found in the lining of the gastrointestinal system and it is similar to those found in the brain or central nervous system (CNS). In fact, the gut contains more neurons than the spinal cord or peripheral nervous system — hence the term “second brain.”
Researchers have found almost invisible connections and communications traveling between the two brains through neural pathways, which affect hormones that control hunger, stress, and overall health.
This new knowledge seems amazing and complex — yet it has been taught for 5,000 years through many yoga traditions, long before it could be proven with powerful imaging technology. Yoga and ayurvedic medicine promote a “belly brain first” approach to health, which says that what we eat directly determines how our brains work.
The two brains affect each other by two-way traffic within the system. The brain’s thoughts affect the belly’s state of health.
For instance, many studies have shown that meditation, which takes place in the mind, can reduce the pain and suffering of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It can also reduce stress and the resulting stress hormones that are released, which means fewer cravings — especially for sugar.
It works the other way, too. The state of the belly affects the brain because the human digestive tract contains more bacteria than cells. This bacteria is called the microbiome. It controls what the digestive tract does, but also feeds the brain and may directly cause depression, mood disorders, anxiety, and other neuropsychological conditions.
[lz_bulleted_list title=”Guide to Good Gut Health” source=”http://www.prcm.org”]Jerusalem artichokes|Bananas|Polenta|Cruciferous vegetables|Blueberries|Beans|Fermented plant-based foods[/lz_bulleted_list]
“Gut health is critically important, not just for mental and emotional health, but also physical health,” Dr. Jennifer Wolkin, a clinical neuropsychologist in New York City, told LifeZette. “Gut microbes produce metabolites, which enter the blood and circulate to regions of the brain where they affect behavior. I often hear from my patients that they never had depression or anxiety until they started having gut health problems.”
Scientists believe gut microbes communicate with the brain directly through the vagus nerve, which connects the network of nerves in the gut to the brain. New treatments for resistant depression involve implanting a device in the gut to stimulate the vagus nerve.
The complicated communications within the body often cause weight gain and derail weight loss efforts. Eating mostly low-nutrition fast foods or diet products can have a devastating impact on the brain’s ability to function.
In 2013, a University of Pennsylvania study showed that children who have high carbohydrate and sugar breakfasts score lower on tests than after eating a more balanced meal to start the day. Many other studies have echoed this finding.
It also explains why dieters, who often avoid food or eat food substitutes such as protein bars, often have difficulty managing their emotions — causing them to binge-eat out of stress or overeat when they are not hungry.
Reducing stress becomes just as important as eating well when attempting weight loss.
“It becomes even more important to pay attention to nutritious food choices,” Wolkin said. “A rise in cortisol [a stress hormone] can lead to sugar cravings, which leads to weight gain. Sugar is also inflammatory, which leads to disruption of the microbiome. Then, if the digestive track is impaired, it won’t efficiently absorb nutrients, which decreases one’s ability to feel satiated.”
The complicated system can go ’round and ’round, leaving the dieter depleted, deprived, and defeated.
Wolkin believes people should take the entire system into consideration when eating. Various foods will affect people differently, depending on their microbiome. It’s crucial to understand that habits such as stress eating, which many believe relieves stress, actually causes more stress.
“Mindless eating can wreak havoc on our digestive abilities by eliciting stress hormones,” Wolkin told LifeZette. “It adds pounds, takes away pleasure, and causes gastrointestinal difficulties. In contrast, eating mindfully reduces our stress hormones, and gives our body the time and space it needs to thoroughly digest food.”
The evidence suggests that eating on the run — so common in our busy culture — makes us fat.
Reducing stress in any way possible becomes just as important as a healthy diet when attempting weight loss. Besides meditation, exercise has a positive effect on both “brains,” with the release of endorphins and reduction of stress hormones. Yoga, massage, body therapies, and other reflective “me time” activities such as journaling, crafts, music, and art reduce stress, too.
Wolkin advocates mindful eating for other reasons as well. “Aside from reducing stress hormones, mindful eating enables us to slowly and sensually savor the action of eating, creating an experience of delight. It also allows us to engage with our inner sense of satiety, which helps curb the overeating that leaves us feeling uncomfortable.”
Modern technology, with its scans, imaging, chemical reactions, and discovery of cell-to-cell communications, seems to indicate that taking care of ourselves is complicated. But, as the yogis surmised 5,000 years ago, it’s actually simple. Everything — even brain activity — starts with what we put in our mouths.
The old adage is proving true: We are what we eat.
Pat Barone MCC is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating, who helps clients heal food addictions.