Big Brain-Little Brain: The Mental Health Connection

Did you know about the mental health connection between your big brain and little brain?

Each of us has a big brain, contained in our skulls, and a little brain contained in the guts. (I’ll bet you thought I was going to say something else.) The reason the gut is called the second brain is because of the enteric nervous system (ENS).

Big brain-little brain: It's not what you think.

The enteric nervous system is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract. Your ENS brain cannot add two and two or compose a poem. But the ENS can and does communicate with the big brain. It communicates through the nervous systems, through hormones, and through the immune system.

More than 100 trillion organisms, collectively called the microbiome, exist in our bodies. (source.) The right microbes keep our gut healthy, turn off stress hormones, and help turn the food we eat into energy. The presence, strength, and number of these organisms signals our gut which in turn signals our brain. Too few of certain microbes may result in depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric diseases.

A few studies show interesting connections. Patients with digestive issues (chronic constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, etc.) treated with psychologically based approaches, had greater improvement than conventionally treated patients. (Harvard). Other studies show that the percentage of people with depression who also have IBS is higher than the people with depression who do not have IBS. We need much more research done about the big brain-little brain connection so we can develop the right recommendations and treatments. 

How can you affect your gut health and thus your mental health in the meantime? By eating more whole foods, fruits, and vegetables and avoiding processed foods. Probiotics can help but they only help so long as you continue to take them. 

Mental Health First Aid

If you suffer from a psychiatric condition and have gut issues, talk to your health professional. Try a dual treatment option (both medical- and psychiatric-based).

This post is one of three others inspired by a TED talk. You may want to also visit “Feelings: They’re All in Your Head” and “You Have the Right to Feel Good About Yourself.” These posts are not to diagnose any condition nor to recommend any treatment. They are intended to guide you to a different way to think about yourself and your mental health. You must decide if you need to research these ideas further or if you need to seek professional help for diagnosis and treatment.

Your Gut Feeling

No doubt you’ve said, “I have a gut feeling” or “I’ve got butterflies in my stomach” in the past. You were right. Your big brain-little brain connection was working on you. Now that you know there’s a connection—what will you do (or do you do) to make certain your two brains are working FOR you? 

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