Your digestive system does so much more than just… well, digest. Its connection to the body goes well beyond breaking down food and nutrient absorption, and while you might not know it, it’s because your gut is smart.
Not “Einstein” smart, but still smart. The enteric nervous system (ENS), a system of neurons that oversees the function of the gastrointestinal tract, contains 100 million neurons, more than are found in the spinal cord![i] Scientists have started calling it “the second brain,”[ii] indicating its importance and abilities. It’s an amazing system that many people either overlook when it comes to their digestive health, or don’t even know exists in the first place. This also means a lot of people don’t know it’s important for your brain, too!
The Sensitivity of the “Second Brain”
The nervous system is incredibly complicated, so we have to break it down part by part to see where the ENS fits in. The whole system is actually split into two major parts: the central nervous system (CNS; the brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS; the nerves connecting the central nervous system to everything else). The PNS is then split into two more sections: the automatic nervous system, which controls your unconscious actions and ensures your organs are all working, and the aforementioned enteric nervous system. The automatic nervous system is itself divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is known as the “fight-or-flight” system, and it prepares your body to deal with emergencies. The PNS slows the heart rate and conserves energy, giving it the nickname the “rest-and-digest” system.
Whew, that’s a lot of nerves. Where’s the ENS in all this? While technically part of the PNS, it’s largely independent, meaning it doesn’t quite fit in with any system. The ENS is a cellular structure built in the walls of the alimentary canal, the passage along which food goes through the body. From the esophagus to the intestines, the ENS helps food move down until the waste is expelled, with its own reflexes and senses that work independently of the brain. It’s almost like the brain said “this mess is your problem” and gave the gastrointestinal system all the cells it needed to take care of food from beginning to end.[i] But like everything in the body, the systems are all connected, and what happens to the CNS can affect the ENS.[ii]
This interaction between the ENS and the brain has led to the creation of another term: the Gut-Brain Axis. The role of the Gut-Brain Axis is to link the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with the mechanisms and various functions of the gut, including immune activation and intestinal permeability.[iii] That ache you feel inside when nervous – the classic case of butterflies in the stomach – is just one of the more common examples of mental anxiety creating physical gastrointestinal reactions.
But this Gut-Brain Axis isn’t just a one-way street. What goes on in the brain can influence the gastrointestinal tract – e.g. those nervous butterflies – but it also works the other way around, too: the health of the gut can affect the brain, and be determinative of emotions, moods, and mental health. The Gut-Brain Axis links the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions in communication, and through the vagus nerve, the leading nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, there’s a direct connection.[iv] With this direct connection, the problems you have with your gastrointestinal tract can lead to emotional and mental conditions, or worsen existing ones. Improving the connection between the gut and the brain can help to solve problems that affect both.[v]
Your Gut Flora and Your Brain
As your gut’s neurons are sensitive to mood and emotion, so are the many, many bacteria that reside on them. You might have heard it said that bacteria outnumber our own cells 10:1; while we now know that isn’t true,[vi] you still have an incredible amount of bacterial support in your body, with a population of almost 40 trillion microorganisms inhabiting the average human body. Many of the most important ones reside in the gut, breaking down your food and protecting you from disease.
Everyone’s gut microbiome is different, a mix of hundreds of different species that maintain our health. But there are also bad bacteria, that when their populations get excessively large, can cause infection and disease. Ensuring the trillions that live and thrive in your gut are mostly the “good” bacteria are extremely important.
So while the digestive system isn’t capable of thought – sadly, “going with your gut” is still going with your brain – it’s incredibly influential on your mental processes. The trillions of microbiota do have an impact on the signaling systems in the central nervous system and in activating neural pathways, and are thus very important for mental health.[vii] Eating the right foods and proper digestion can promote the growth of healthy bacteria, by moving the digestive process along and not giving the harmful bacteria the toxins off of which they love to feed.[viii]
Digestive Enzymes for Healthy Gut Bacteria
To sum up: good gut health can lead to good mental health. Proper digestion, therefore, can influence your mood and emotions, because the increased nutrient absorption gives your body more of what it needs, and doesn’t leave as many large particles for the bad bacteria to thrive on. Probiotics to increase the growth of healthy bacteria is great, but just properly digesting foods can be a good start to promoting this growth, too.
Digestive enzymes naturally are produced by the pancreas help your body break down proteins, fats, and carbs, making it easier to digest them. Sometimes, though, your body needs a little help. Food allergies, inflammation in the digestive tract, age, and yes, your emotional state, can influence the amount of digestive enzymes you’re producing. Supplements can help provide you with the enzymes you need to properly breakdown your food.
Many medical studies have shown that probiotics and digestive enzymes can decrease psychological distress and improve mood.[ix] There is also evidence to support their potential to reduce depressive symptoms,[x] but it shouldn’t be taken instead of doctor-prescribed medications; they can be taken with antidepressants, and can effectively counter the effects that these medications can have on the digestive system.[xi]
Scientific research is learning more and more about the digestive system and your brain, including the ENS’s influence on memory.[xii] They can even help mitigate the effects of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Scientific papers are making more and more connections between the bacteria of the gut and ASDs, and adding digestive enzymes have been included in this. As one study, entitled “A Randomized, Placebo-controlled Trial of Digestive Enzymes in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders”, concludes: “Digestive enzymes are inexpensive, readily available, have an excellent safety profile, and have mildly beneficial effects in ASD patients. Depending on the parameter measured in our study, we propose digestive enzymes for managing symptoms of ASD. Digestive enzyme therapy may be a possible option in treatment protocols for ASD in the future.”[xiii]
Digestive enzymes are easy to incorporate into your diet; follow the instructions on the label to properly use them. Usually, they’ll be consumed before a meal in a glass of water, but some can be taken with your food. Proper digestion is the key to not only feeling healthy, but also happy!
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