The Amazing Second Brain In Your Gut
I come from a long line of women who suffer from a terrible affliction called the hangries. Symptoms include spontaneous bursts of irrational behaviour and sudden flashes of outrage, exasperation and impatience.
Fortunately the remedy for this ailment which occurs when hunger and anger combine is usually cheap and immediately available - Food. Unfortunately, I recently found myself in a situation where food was not immediately available. I had risen with the sun to take part in a special event for the UN International Day of Peace. I was meditating on a stage in front of 300 people; joined by Bishops, Rabbis and community and spiritual leaders from all walks of life … and I was hangry. I cannot truly express the extent of mental focus that is needed to meditate on thoughts of world peace for half an hour while being hangry.
As a journalist who writes about the science behind the connection between our mind, body and health, this recent episode of the hangries got me pondering the connection between our mind and gut. It turns out, there’s now a scientific explanation as to why being deprived of food can set off these monstrous mood changes.
One major breakthrough came with the discovery of the enteric nervous system; a part of the autonomic nervous system in your body, which performs unconscious functions like your heart beating or your skin sweating. The enteric nervous system is found in your gut and scientists are calling it the second brain because while it can communicate with your brain and influence behaviour, it can also do its own thing, acting completely independently.
It’s estimated that there are between 400 and 600 million neurons in your gut – that’s up to three times as many neurons than in the brain of a rat. You’re not conscious of your gut thinking, but the system produces about 95% of the serotonin and 50% of the dopamine found in your body.
In the event of a bad case of the hangries, researchers believe the appetite hormone ghrelin, which is produced in your second brain in your gut, is to blame. Researchers at Monash University have found there are receptors for ghrelin in your brain and when you’re hungry, this gremlin of a hormone makes you feel anxious until you eat something.
Scientists from the University of Cambridge Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience have also found that when we’re lacking in an essential amino acid called tryptophan we can’t regulate our emotions as effectively. The good news is there are lots of foods that contain tryptophan including chocolate, oats, dates, eggs, bananas and poultry.
As for my own recent episode of the hangries, I’m happy to say the organisers provided us with a delicious breakfast after the event and none of my fellow meditators lost an arm or a leg in the meantime.