If you have ever experienced butterflies in your stomach when giving a speech or you have made a decision based on “gut instinct”, or you have had a bad feeling in your belly, you have probably felt like you have a second brain in your belly. Believe it or not, you do. Researchers have discovered a hidden environment found in the digestive system that is directly connected to the brain.

Researchers call this hidden environment the enteric nervous system. This system is comprised of between 200 and 600 million neurons, which is more than what is found in the spinal cord. These neurons are housed between two layers of lining that runs the entire length to the digestive system, from the esophagus to the rectum. Inside this lining, research has also found an ecosystem of bacteria.

Enteric Nervous System

The enteric nervous system is not a thinking and problem-solving brain like the one in our skull. It is a mesh-like network of neurons that gives off stress responses to psychological stress. Unlike most cells in the body that receive signals from the brain, the cells in the enteric nervous system carry sensory information to the brain. These signals can influence your mood, your thought patterns, and even your health.

The neurons found in the enteric nervous system also communicate with the bacteria located in the gastrointestinal system to improve gut motility, digestion, and nutrient absorption. The bacteria in your digestive tract is used to help digest food and fend off illnesses caused by viruses, bacteria, and molds.

The main function of the enteric nervous system is controlling digestion, releasing enzymes in the body to break down food into usable nutritional molecules, and helping transport nutrients from the digestive tract into the bloodstream. When the enteric system is not functioning properly, it can cause a number of digestive issues, including irritable bowel syndrome, which causes abdominal bloating, upset stomach, belly pain, constipation, and diarrhea.

Mood Swings Linked to the Digestive System

For decades, researchers thought that depression, stress, and anxiety were the cause of irritable bowel syndrome; however, recent research has found that when the digestive system is irritated and inflamed, the enteric nervous system sends signals to the central nervous system and brain. These signals cause mood swings and changes in your overall mental health. Furthermore, over time, IBS can lead to anxiety or depression.

Probiotics Can Help Improve Digestive Health

One of the best ways to improve your digestive system and thus improve the enteric nervous system is to increase the number of healthy, beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. Probiotics are fermented foods that are cultured with bacteria. Some of the most common probiotic rich foods include kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi. In addition to these foods, you can take a probiotic supplement to help improve the health of your gastrointestinal tract.

There are many different strains of probiotics. Knowing the best probiotic strains to feed the enteric nervous system and the microbiome is vital to your health. Taking a combination of probiotics and prebiotics can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Research has shown that the microbiome and the enteric nervous system can send information to the central nervous system and contribute to the emotional health of an individual.

There are seven types of probiotics found in most probiotic supplements. These probiotic strains include Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Bacillus, Enterococcus, Streptococcus, Saccharomyces, and Escherichia. Understanding how each strain helps the gastrointestinal tract and the benefits that it offers can help you choose the best probiotic strain or combination of strains that your body needs.

In addition to the gastrointestinal benefits of probiotics, these probiotic strains can help decrease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Once probiotics supplements are begun, you should begin to see results within a few days; however, it may take up to six weeks to realize the full benefits of a probiotic supplement.

Ready to Improve Your Digestive Health?

Our integrative medicine practitioners specialize in gut treatment can recommend the best probiotics strains to improve your GI health as well as develop a customized plan to heal your digestive system, decrease depression, and improve the health of your enteric nervous system. The customized plan may include dietary changes to address potential food intolerances, an exercise plan designed to reduce systemic inflammation, sleep recommendations, and offer suggestions on stress relief techniques that can help improve your digestive health.