Gut health is important for mindfulness practice. Why? It promotes mental clarity. Yes, your body quite literally has a mind of its own, one that affects your “mental” mind. Scientists have begun to recognise that there is, quite literally, a “second brain” in your gut.
AS STRANGE as it might sound, within the tissues that line your “gut”, and which run all the way from the oesophagus through the stomach, small intestine and colon, are millions of neurons. More neurons than are in your spinal cord, in fact. Plus, they’re all bathed in neurotransmitters. In addition, they send nine times more messages to the brain than they receive from the brain.
You only have to think about how quickly your brain knows when you’ve eaten something bad to recognise one level of truth about gut health. Then think about how foggy your head can be when you’re constipated—and how clear-headed you feel when you’re not! In fact, in its global marketing, Kellogg’s All-Bran Flakes makes the claim that you’ll feel “All-Bran New” in just five days from eating its product, which is designed to improve digestive health.
Gut health has proven emotional benefits
During the activation of this campaign in South Africa, the marketing manager Srinivas Adapa said, “The positive effects of [managing your digestive or gut health] have proven added emotional benefits over and above achieving a sense of physical digestive wellness.” (Quote from www.fastmoving.co.za – a site which is about fast-moving consumer goods—FMCG—marketing, not fast-moving bowels!)
The gut receives messages from the brain via the vagus nerve. However, studies have shown that the gut continues to operate—for example, performing the peristaltic reflex—even when that nerve is severed. In this and other ways, it qualifies as a self-regulating system. It can send and receive impulses, learn, remember and produce feelings.
The link between gut and brain was identified a century ago
The gut is known formally as the enteric nervous system (ENS), as distinct from the central nervous system (CNS) and autonomic nervous system (ANS). Two English investigators, William M. Bayliss and Ernest H. Starling, first identified the ENS as far back as the nineteenth century. This was picked up in the early 1900s by a Chicago-based anatomist named Byron Robinson. He wrote a book called The Abdominal and Pelvic Brain. Then Johannis Langley took it further in the late 1920s when he mapped out the ANS, but also proffered the CNS and ENS.
However, it was not until Dr Michael Gershon—who is now Chair of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Columbia University—published The Second Brain in the 1960s that the important of gut health started to gain even a mild amount of traction. Today, the field of neurogastroenterology is reckoned to be the new black of medical science.
People with good gut health are less likely to be depressed or anxious
The implications of this are enormous, and well summarised below in a 2017 article by Romesh Jayasinghe called The Brain in the Guts. He says: “Not only has research shown that our gut bacteria can manipulate our food cravings and behaviour in order to ensure their own survival (you can blame them for your junk food obsession), but the colonies in our digestive system also affect our mood. Studies suggest that people with healthy and diverse gut microbiomes [and therefore good gut health] are less likely to be depressed or anxious.
“The gut is no longer seen as an entity with the sole purpose of helping with all aspects of digestion. It’s also being considered as a key player in regulating inflammation and immunity. … In some ways, it seems like our second brain and its gut feeling is even more influential than our logical thought. … In conclusion, the human gut has long been seen as a repository of good and bad feelings. Perhaps emotional states from the head’s brain are mirrored in the gut’s brain, where they are felt by those who pay attention to them.”