The digestive system does more than filter the nasties from the nutrients in popcorn and poutine. A complex and comprehensive system of nerves known as “the second brain,” your digestive system can deeply impact your overall health.
Have you ever been nervous before a job interview, then felt the desperate need to use the toilet? Or waited for a date at a crowded meeting place and tried to ignore the butterflies in your tummy as you anxiously await their arrival?
It’s clear our tummy can sometimes betray us by doing exactly as it pleases, regardless of what our brain tries to communicate, which is precisely the conclusion Dr. Michael Gershon has come to.
Gershon, an expert in the nascent field of neurogastroenterology, has devoted his career to understanding the human bowel. Decades of research led Gershon to write The Second Brain, a book that relates digestive health to overall health in a much bigger way than many people realize.
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In simple terms, Gershon believes the digestive system has a “second brain.” That means it can control our gut all by itself.
Did you know?
Some of the symptoms associated with poor digestive health are not necessarily related to digestion. For instance, the CDHF says heartburn and nausea can be linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), while aching, sore joints, skin and mouth sores and red, inflamed eyes can be symptoms of Crohn’s disease. If you suffer from any of these ailments on a regular basis (in addition to digestive complaints, such as bloating, cramping and changing bowel movements), see your doctor right away.
The second brain is known in medical circles as the enteric nervous system, which consists of millions of nerve endings — 100 million neurons, to be exact — embedded in the walls of our gut, which measures about 9 metres end to end (from the esophagus to the anus).
“The brain in the head doesn’t need to get its hands dirty with the messy business of digestion, which is delegated to the brain in the gut,” Gershon says.
“But our two brains — the one in our head and the one in our bowel — must cooperate. If they do not, then there is chaos in the gut and misery in the head — everything from ‘butterflies’ to cramps, from diarrhea to constipation.”
The importance of digestive wellness
It’s not just mixed messages being sent between your brain and your belly that can result in poor digestive health. Your diet obviously plays a major role as well, and keeping your digestive system in balance is the aim of the game, according to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF).
For optimal health, you should do the following:
- Drink smart: Drinking plenty of water keeps your digestive system on track. Rumours that drinking water with meals will dilute the digestive juices or interfere with digestion are unproven, according to The Mayo Clinic. “In fact, drinking water during or after a meal actually aids digestion,” they report. You should also reduce your consumption of drinks high in sugar, caffeine and alcohol.
- Eat smart: Consume foods that contain pre and probiotics, such as yogurt, bananas, whole-grain breads and honey, as well as foods that will help keep you regular, like natural wheat bran fibre. You should also finish the last meal of the day no later than two hours before bedtime.
- Exercise smart: Establish healthy routines that allow for regular exercise and quality sleep. These are essential for your overall health and well-being.