Your brain is the central part of your nervous system. It controls voluntary and involuntary muscle movement, thoughts and emotions, and orchestrates the complex symphony of neurotransmitters and hormones that determine who we are, how we think, and how we function. Your digestive tract contains much of the same tissue that is in the brain and nervous system; so much that we can call the digestive tract ‘The Second Brain’.
Using the idea of the Second Brain gives us a better understanding of how dysfunction in the digestive tract can cause a wide array of problems seemingly unrelated to digestion. Conditions like mental illness, anxiety and depression, chronic pain, migraines, and skin conditions such as rosacea, acne, and eczema, should always be treated by looking at the health of the digestive tract.
The concept of the Second Brain is also a key component for helping those with one of the most common digestive disorders, Irritable Bowel Syndrome. IBS is a common set of symptoms that affects 10-15% of the population. It is a diagnosis of exclusion, for those with abdominal pain, gas, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea that have no structural changes that could cause these symptoms. Because this is a functional disease, treatments are often aimed at simply relieving the symptoms. Most often prescribed are laxatives, antidiarrheals, and/or antacids.
We can use the second brain to take a different approach to diagnosing and treating IBS. The nervous tissue in the gut secretes the same hormones and neurotransmitters as the brain. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with being happy, is found in higher concentrations in the gut than in the brain. In addition to making you happy, serotonin also controls the motility or movement of the intestines. When serotonin levels are sub-optimal, symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea can occur.
IBS and SIBO can both be caused by improper motility of the intestines. Sometimes supplementing with an appropriate dose of 5-HTP (the precursor to serotonin) can help improve the motility and decrease the symptoms associated with both IBS and SIBO.
The nervous system in the digestive tract interacts with other hormones as well. An imbalance of progesterone and estrogen in women often causes a change in bowel function around the time of menstruation. Cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, also affects bowel function. We have all experienced a ‘nervous stomach’, when a stressful situation affects our digestion.
Chronic infections and motility problems are common causes of IBS and SIBO. Using specialized SIBO breath testing, stool analysis, and organic acid tests can help to identify infections, bowel function, and neurotransmitter imbalances.
If you have IBS, or suspect you have it, I recommend testing through a qualified functional medicine practitioner like myself. We have methods of balancing the second brain that are non-invasive and effective and will improve your overall health and well being.