Ask anyone where their brain is and they’ll look at you strangely and point to their heads. But science now acknowledges a wider truth; we actually have 3 brains – our head, heart and gut (also known as the enteric brain). Each brain interacts with the other two and functions interdependently in a mutually supportive way.
What defines a brain? Your spleen is not a brain. Nor is your lung. Yet science is defining the heart and gut as 2nd and 3rd brains. Why? The science behind this thinking is that each centre has its own intrinsic nervous system. They have neurons and the ability to perform a range of complex adaptive processes such as absorbing information, processing, storing, changing and adapting that information. A very basic definition of brain is that if it can learn, then it can be considered to be a brain.
The head brain is the most obvious one, in charge of thinking perception and cognition. It creates meaning, narrative and language. It uses words such as ‘I think’ and ‘I understand’.
The second brain is the heart, the seat of emotion. Our values lie here along with the process of emoting Heart-based language uses phrases such as ‘I feel’. It also is the place of consciousness of self. It’s why we intuitively point to our hearts when we say ‘I’ or ‘me’.
The third brain is the enteric brain, the gut. This is where our core identity resides. What is me, what is not me? This becomes clearer when we consider that the function of our gut is to process our food taking in nutrients our body needs and discarding all other substances via the digestive process. Our gut plays the critical role of managing our immune system, determining what is friend and what is foe – which is why we feel fear and anxiety in our gut. But we also ‘have the guts’ to do something courageous, it’s our gut that propels us into action.
A deeper investigation into the enteric brain, this mass of neural tissue filled with important neurotransmitters reveals that the gut does so much more than manage digestion. It has a direct connection to the large brain in our skulls and partly determines our mental state. A large part of our emotions are quite likely to be influenced by the nerves in our gut. A simple example is ‘butterflies in our stomach’ signalling our physiological stress response. Of course gastrointestinal (GI) problems can contribute to a bad mood, but more than that, our every day emotional well-being may rely on the messages sent from the enteric brain below to the brain above.
Given the connection between these two brains, it’s no surprise to learn that depression treatments which are aimed at the mind, can unintentionally – and negatively – impact the gut. 95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels. Because antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRSs) increase serotonin levels, it’s little wonder that meds meant to change chemical balances in the mind more often than not cause GI issues as a side effect.
Well, no, it would of course be simplistic to say that gut issues cause mental illness. However, as we have seen, the gut communicates with our big brain – with profound results. The gut may trigger big emotional responses in those suffering from IBS (Irritable bowel syndrome), constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, pain and stomach upset. Historically, researchers believed that it was anxiety and depression that contributed to these problems. “But studies show that it may also be the other way around with researchers finding evidence that irritation in the GI system may send signals to the central nervous system which trigger mood changes,” explains Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, whose research on the enteric nervous system has gained international attention. ‘This could well explain why a higher-than- normal percentage of people with IBS and other gut issues develop depression and anxiety.”
It’s why here at The Other Option, we’re passionate about advocating natural ways of dealing with gastrointestinal issues such as supplementing with Siberian Pine Nut oil. We believe the benefits can be so much more far-reaching than simply alleviating symptoms of GI distress.