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The Brain-Gut Connection

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Why do we get butterflies in our stomach before a performance?

Why does indigestion produce nightmares?

Why are antidepressants now also being used for gastrointestinal ailments?

It turns out that both our gut and our brain originate early in embryogenesis from the same clump of tissue which divides during fetal development. While one section turns into the central nervous system, another piece migrates to become the enteric nervous system. Later the two nervous systems connect via a cable called the vagus nerve -- the longest of all the cranial nerves whose name is derived from Latin, meaning "wandering."  The vagus nerve meanders from the brain stem through the neck and finally ends up in the abdomen. There's the brain-gut connection.

Have you ever wondered why an impending job interview can cause an attack of intestinal cramps? And why do anti-depressants targeted for the brain cause nausea or abdominal upset in millions of people who take such drugs? The reason for these common experiences is because each of us literally has two brains --the familiar one encased in our skulls and a lesser-known but vitally important one found in the human gut. Like Siamese twins, the two brains are interconnected; when one gets upset, the other does, too. No wonder people trust their gut. One half of all our nerve cells are located within the gut.

The state of the gut has a profound influence upon our health. It is from the healthy gut that we enjoy neurological and psychological as well as immunological health. This is not to discount the human brain. This is simply to say that the body has two brains -- the second brain being our gut. There is an excellent article on this brain-gut connection called Complex and Hidden Brain in Gut Makes Bellyaches and Butterflies written by Sandra Blakeslee, originally published in the January 23, 1996 issue of The New York Times.

How it all Works

The gut's brain, known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), is located in sheaths of tissue lining the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. Considered a single entity, it is packed with neurons, neurotransmitters and proteins that zap messages between neurons or support cells like those found in the brain. It contains a complex circuitry that enables it to act independently, learn, remember and, as the saying goes, produce gut feelings.

In his book The Second Brain, HarperCollins 1998, Dr. Michael Gershon, a professor of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, dubs the entire gastrointestinal system the body's second nervous system. "The brain is not the only place in the body that's full of neurotransmitters," says Dr. Gershon. "A hundred million neurotransmitters line the length of the gut, approximately the same number that is found in the brain..." If we add the nerve cells of the esophagus, stomach and large intestine, there are more nerve cells in the gut than there are in the entire remainder of the peripheral nervous system. Nearly every chemical that controls the brain in the head has been identified in the gut, including hormones and neurotransmitters.

This complex circuitry provides the brain in the gut with the means to act independently. Proof of this can be seen in stroke victims whose brain stem cells, which control swallowing, have been destroyed. If this occurs, a surgeon has to create an opening in the abdominal wall, so that feeding can be accomplished by manually inserting foods directly into the stomach. Once the food is in the stomach, digestion and absorption can take place, even in individuals who are brain dead. The central nervous system is needed for swallowing and for defecation, but from the time the food is swallowed to the moment its remains are expelled from the anus, the gut is in charge.

Notes taken from, Patient Heal Thyself  by Jordan S. Rubin, NMD, CNC

 

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