– Or: “Mind over Stomach” might have more than one meaning!

Much is said about the Brain Body connection.  So much so, in fact, that I might have to bypass that one entirely.  Why?  I’m not sure, actually.  Maybe I find the topic intimidating.  Possibly because it’s not hitting my interest as much as the Brain Stomach connection is right now after reading some stuff recently.

Hey, not every blog post is going to hit, right?  They can’t all be ringers.

In any case, the effeirity of the subject is something that has been on my mind for a while.

(full disclosure: acid reflux guy here.  thus, topic suitability).

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been told that the communication channels between the stomach and the brain have a lag time of roughly 20 minutes.  I wanted to know why that was the case.  I’m not always good at accepting “This is a thing you must believe and adapt to for reasons.”

The further I clawed through the rabbit hole to find answers, the more I found that there is actually … umm … a brain inside our stomachs.

Wait.  What?

Back when “Mind over Matter” was the thing to say – does anyone actually say that any longer? – I used to joke about the concept of “Mind over Stomach” to convince myself to stop eating junk food all day and all night. Turns out I might have been inadvertently onto something!  Except it could have been “Mind over other mind” then.  Which sounds less keen.

Contained within the walls of the digestive system is is something that has been identified as being a “second brain” for us.  Which is mind blowing to even think about.  Except which mind is getting exploded?  I’m not even sure!

Stay with me here!  This is going to get kinda weird but mostly fascinating! On to the Brain Stomach Connection!

What exactly is this second brain?

Let’s have a little conversation about the enteric nervous system.

The irony of calling it a nervous system is that it appears to have a direct relationship with things like anxiety and depression.

(yeah, terrible joke.  I’ve earned whatever punishment you deem effeir, suitable, and quantitatively appropriate.)

The enteric nervous system is relatively basic as far as a brain is concerned.  Researchers do not believe – presently – that this system is capable of independent thought based on what we know of as being the thought process.  The link to the central nervous system, however, is the current focus of study.  This tracks, given that current knowledge of the enteric nervous system indicates that there are 100 million nerve cells feeding it.  Taking information from all throughout the gastrointestinal tract covering territory from the esophagus all the way to the rectum is the order of business.  From a physical standpoint, that doesn’t look like much but in the context of internal real estate, there’s a lot happening there.

So the brain stomach connection is a connection between one nervous system and another.  Huh.

How does the brain stomach connection benefit from this second brain?

The ENS has a mammoth responsibility in terms of processing fuel.  It starts with total control of the swallowing mechanism and continues on to the release of enzymes that will process everything that comes into the basement.  It even goes so far as to control blood flow in an effort to take better advantage of nutrients processed.  While our big brain is responsible for much higher level tasks like thoughts and keeping us from falling down and whether or not that bacon cheeseburger is a good idea (it is), having the smaller brain to delegate all those other tasks to has to be a relief when all is said and done.

Most of those things happening inside are things happening that the second brain handles without us ever having to “think” about them.  Something controls them without cognizant thought and the process is taken care of.

This is probably a good thing, as the ENS continues with the processing of all of the fuel and its byproducts through the intestines with leftovers finally deposited as a form of effluviant waste.

Anyone who reads this blog has seen me refer to the big brain as the “keto-compatible, fatty computer made of meat” over and over again.  I stand by that description.  There isn’t enough information about this second brain to give it a cool categorization though.  Given time, I’m sure I’ll come up with something equally nonsensical.

Supplemental note on body hacking

Body hacking or biohacking is a relatively new concept where media coverage is concerned.  Young blood transfusions, fecal transplants, trying to edit your own DNA with CRISPR and injecting yourself with questionable unsupervised things.  Up to and including actually embedding computer chips into your body.  Because why not.

The nerd part of me wonders when biohacking is going to evolve into what is currently and recently done with computers.  For years, the main central processing unit (CPU) of a computer would delegate responsibilities to the graphics processing unit (GPU) for all of the cool stuff we see on screens.  At some point, someone got it into their head to hack the GPU to add more processing power to a machine.  Bitcoin mining hardware, for example, absolutely THRIVED on GPU cards.  This drove up pricing astronomically but that cat is out of the bag now.  Software exists that will allow for the GPU to be used for things that it might not have been necessarily designed for.  Eventually we will all benefit from this in some fashion or another outside the world of hackery.

So let’s take that into the body.  The main brain (CPU) is delegating things to the second brain (GPU … gastro processing unit?  oh my gosh i’ve double earned my punishment) and the body works in harmony to greater or lesser degrees.  Imagine what might happen if scientists find ways to tap into the processing power of that second brain to do more things without compromising its primary function.  The ability to properly organize and control 100 million nerve endings isn’t insignificant.

Maybe the brain stomach connection is going to get physically and actually wired together for some kind of hackery. Stay tuned.

Ok, I think I’ve run that tangent into the ground.  For now.  Moving on!

Why is knowing about this second brain so important to us?

For ages, conventional science indicated that conditions like anxiety and depression were contributors to gastrointestinal experiences. Things like irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and upset stomach are examples.  These new revelations are turning the tables on those theories and scientists are now beginning to find evidence that it might be the other way around.  That bowel challenges and irritations in the GI system may be sending signals that cause for mood changes via the central nervous system.

Which would indicate that the ENS is effectively reacting to gut distress and then sending signals to the central nervous system that cause for changes in mood.

Ever had that experience where you ate something that just plain did not agree with you?  Think about some of the reactions.  Cramps maybe.  Cold sweats.  Dizziness and nausea.  Possibly the rejection of what it was that you ate.  Think about how you felt under those circumstances. Gut distress leading directly to complete changes in mood that you have very little control over for the duration.  We’ve always known that this is a thing that happens, but now we’re learning why and that stuff is SO BLOODY COOL.

What has all this meant? Gastroenterologists and Psychologists are starting to work in tandem to identify how the belly and the brain interact with each other.  Which brain is feeding what to which brain and where we identify where to start.

For example, cutting edge theories are causing for folks to be prescribed anti-depressants in order to soothe gastrointestinal challenges. These, in turn, cause for mood balance.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is being utilized to find ways to specifically improve communication between both of the brains  or restore balance for the Force.

Does this explain the mythical 20 minute theorem?

Prior to the discovery of just how specifically the ENS impacts everything from the throat to the butt, conventional wisdom dictated that when the body needed food and water it would start to produce ghrelin.  Ghrelin, often referred to as the “hunger hormone,” was thought to signal to the brain that it was feeding time.  Once consumption would begin, enzymatic reaction would cause for ghrelin to cease production.  The combination of this cessation and stretch receptors in the stomach would finally signal to the brain “dude, STAHP.  I’m FULL!”

The discovery of ENS has only gone so far as to challenge that conventional wisdom to a certain extent.  The specifics of why that period of time is generally accepted?  Still under consideration it appears without any capacity to measure an answer for that specific question.

So in reality, the effluxion of time between gorged and feeling gorged is determined by the relationship between the enteric and central nervous systems.  Why that amount of time?  To be continued.

Side bar on the ENS and linkage to Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disorder (GERD)

Feel free to skip this part.  Every blog topic is based on something I’m fascinated about but this is very relevant to my interests.

Acid Reflux has been a part of my entire adult life.  When this subject came up and I started reading about the link between the second and first brains, my immediate thought was to start digging to see if any research has been done to link for other possible reasons for acid reflux that might be outside of the scope of what we’ve known previously.

The theory I had in the back of my mind was that the ENS might be responsible via triggering of some form for generating excessive amounts of acid.  The proton pumps have to get their information from somewhere to function – or over-function – and the ENS seems like a possible source.

Unfortunately, I was not able to find anything concrete.  The National Institute of Health has some information regarding the autonomic nervous system and its relationship to reflux, however this is from findings dated in 2004.  18 years later, the bevy of new information is probably a more reliable measurement of what is happening.

The closest was able to get was an article from Frontiers in Pharmacology that discusses Prolonged Indomethacin Administration in the Porcine Duodenum.

Say that ten times fast.

It was one of very few things I was able to find that discussed references to ENS and GERD in the same article.  Outside of that, we’re left to speculation.  And some naturopathic/chiropractic links to theories of linkage.  Don’t get me wrong, there might be some validity to the links that are being made in those circles.  In this case, however, I’d be more interested in further research.

The bottom line

If you really want to gorge on some of the finer details, this article at the National Institute of Health is a great place to sink your teeth in.  It’s a lot to swallow and there’s so much information to digest.  Devouring the article will be enlightening; it might also help you sleep better.  Maybe you’ll cook up some theories by reading it that bring you a Nobel prize or something!

(ok, enough food and fuel jokes.  I’ve already earned my special place in prison; this is just icing on the cake)

So what did we learn today?  We have two brains!  That’s the short of it.  It’s proof that the longer we live, the more we learn about how our bodies work, and the less we truly know about the miracle of all of the mechanisms that keep us alive. The good news is that we’ll never want for new and exciting things to learn about.

As far as the Brain Stomach connection?  Turns out it’s a Brain BRAIN connection. Never in my life would I have imagined I’d be writing those words.

Thanks for going down that rabbit hole with me.  Until next week!

-= george =-




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About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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