The Enteric Nervous System

Also Known As: “The Brain in Your Gut”

When we think about the roles of the nervous system, the defaults are cognition, movement, and perception – but in regards to biological resources for each function, digestion needs to be near the top of the list. Enter the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), also known as “The Brain in Your Gut.” The ENS is invested in digestive comfort (or discomfort as it may be) meaning that it is the ENS’s job to see the process of eating all the way through to digestion, absorption, and elimination. The ENS has around 500 million nerve cells, including about 100 million neurons; it is the largest collection of nerve cells in your body second only to the brain. Take a second to think about this; if nervous tissue is responsible for all of our perceptions, sensations, and formulations of the world, then our digestive tract in incredibly rich in understanding and importance. There’s a reason that the term “gut instinct” is so popular. ENS nervous tissue lines the walls of the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, pancreas, gallbladder and biliary tree, covering a large surface area and performing many important tasks.

 

di·ges·tion | noun | the process of breaking down food by mechanical and enzymatic action in the alimentary canal into substances that can be used by the body.

 

Additionally, the ENS is highly connected with the other sections of the nervous system. The Vagus Nerve serves to connect the ENS to the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The Vagus Nerve also connects the CNS to the ENS, forming a bidirectional pathway, meaning the gut impacts the brain and the brain impacts the gut. The ENS and the brain are also connected via endocrine pathways such as the HPA Axis, immune pathways (cytokines) and metabolic pathways (short chain fatty acids & tryptophan). Read more about these connections here.

ENS & Microbiome

The ENS exists separately from the microbiome, though the two entities work closely together. The role of the ENS is perceiving the workings of our inner ecosystem. The inside of our digestive tract is contiguous with the world outside of our bodies. In fact, the inside of our guts can actually be considered the outside word… a classification that gives interesting food for thought in labeling the self and our bodies. The ENS is an important piece connecting the microbiome and the brain. If you want to read more about the microbiome and how to support it, you can read our articles “The Human Microbiome: A Crash Course,” and “Your Food and Your Microbiome.”

Interconnected

The Enteric Nervous System and the processes of the gut are incredibly interconnected. They are also important in disease processes, symptoms, and health experience. Brain health and gut health are related in extensive ways. To start, the food you eat impacts more than just bioavailability of nutrients, it impacts how you feel and think. Changes in your digestive system trigger changes in the central nervous system (and vice versa) – think about how your mood changes when you’re hungry or you feel nauseated when you are anxious. The coolest part? Brain health can be mediated through your diet and gut health. We know that many chronic illnesses are marked with gut issues: GERD, constipation, indigestion, IBS, etc, also meaning that these issues also impact your cognition and emotion. According to David Perlmutter, inflammation also starts in the gut, impacting and worsening healing processes and symptoms throughout the body. Modern Americans are notoriously overfed and undernourished. Bringing attention and intention – consciousness – to the foods and nutrients you consume is an invitation for vibrancy in health and healing.

“Don’t dismiss any of the thoughts or ideas that come. Your gut is your compass. Others would call this ‘instrument’ heart or intuition. Whatever it is for you, listen to it. Anything it points to is a resource.”  ― Victoria Ichizli-Bartels

Supporting Your Gut Brain Connection

Below are some ways you can support your ENS and Gut Brain Connection as recommended by Porter Koury, our clinical nutritionist. If you’d like to schedule an appointment with Porter, you can contact us here. You can also listen to her interview on Speak Your Piece with Darian Didrick talking about nutrition and mental health here.

  1. Avoid processed foods.

Nearly 60 percent of a standard American diet is made of ultra-processed foods. This type of processing requires a hefty load of preservatives and chemical manipulation for shipping and shelf life. Ultra-processed foods are manufactured to make you buy more of them, not to nourish you or give you the nutrients you need. The added sugars in these products are responsible for many of the chronic conditions in America today, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and migraines. 

  1. Eat probiotic rich foods.

Foods like kefir and sauerkraut are probiotic rich and help diversify your microbiome. This diversity promotes more robust functioning and supports your mood and health.

  1. Eat foods like nuts and mushrooms.

Nuts are full of serotonin, a neurotransmitter thought to be important in mood. Some mushrooms, such as shiitake, contain plenty of vitamin B6 – a nutrient that is important in the synthesis of amine neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Much of serotonergic transmission and synthesis occurs in your gut, making it even more important and helpful to include mushrooms and other B6 rich foods in your diet.

  1. Eat healthy fats.

Healthy fats such as avocado and olive oil are important in brain development and function, demonstrating another avenue for how diet impacts brain health.

Brain – Gut Support

In addition to eating foods to support your brain, you can engage in stress reduction and mindfulness activities to calm your brain and support your gut. For example, in Ayurvedic medicine, they teach that your first burp tells you when it is time to stop eating, or in other words when your body burps it is telling you you have enough food. Practicing being consciously aware of your first burp while eating can help support your digestion and brain gut connection. Learn more about this technique in this interview with Jonelle Pollock & Virginia Schmidt, and stay tuned for an article about mindfulness practices that support your gut.

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The mysteries held in our bodies are fascinating, and we hope you are able to spend time investigating the way your body moves and functions, and in so doing find health.

Interested in learning more? Read more here:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4367209/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6047317/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24997029/