Often the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is referred to as the second brain. No gentlemen, it's not related to Captain Winkie; we are talking about the digestive tract! It is referred to as the second brain because it functions on the same neurons and neurotransmitters as the central nervous system found in the brain and spinal column. The brain and the gut are in constant communication. In fact the digestive tract has more neurons than the entire spinal column! In addition, the gut uses over 30 neurotransmitters including: acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin. Over 90% of the body’s serotonin and over 50% of the body’s dopamine can be found in the gut.
Did you get butterflies just reading that?
Some more quick biology will lay the foundation. Bear with me, this is important.
The Autonomic Nervous System consists of two parts: the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) and SNS (sympathetic nervous system). The SNS is common referred to as “fight or flight” because when the SNS kicks in, the body directs its energy toward survival. The PNS is referred to as “rest and digest” because when the PNS is engaged, the body is digesting and taking care of itself.
“Rest and digest” and “fight or flight” seem to get most of the spotlight as far as nervous systems are concerned and we rarely hear about the ENS; however, they work synergistically.
The ENS is stimulated by the PNS (rest and digest). This aids in defecation and provides a nerve supply to the colon, rectum and anus. Conversely, the ENS is stalled when the SNS (fight or flight) is engaged. It was probably paramount for our ancestor’s survival to be able to refrain from relieving themselves (insert poop emoji) when being attacked.
This might explain why stress has such a huge impact on the gut and visa versa. Too much time in the sympathetic nervous system can cause acid in the gut, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and esophageal spasms.
The SNS direcs blood flow to the muscles, thus preparing us for action. However, the decrease in blood flow and oxygen to the digestive system can lead to cramping, inflammation, and an imbalance of gut bacteria. In more serious cases this manifests as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel syndrome, ulcers, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
In conclusion, be mindful of your nervous system! Get pumped up and go into the unknown. Do what you normally wouldn’t or couldn’t do before. That takes guts (or lack of guts because the sympathetic nervous system will be engaged). Good game! High fives and butt pats all around. Now, mindfully get back into the parasympathetic nervous system. Do yoga, meditate, go for a walk, lightly jog, take a little CBD, and spend some time with Fluffy (the dog, cat, your rabbit, bearded dragon... whatever ticks your tock).
The next email will go over how your diet might be impacting your nervous system. You eat because you’re stressed, and you’re stressed because you eat. It’s a viscous cycle.
Until next time..
Stay healthy, my friends!