Our ‘Second Brain’ – And Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Mood

Our 'Second Brain' - And Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Mood

Hidden in the walls of our digestive system is something extraordinary. Scientists have known about it for a while, but new technology is taking the research to the cutting edge. What is being discovered there will revolutionise the way we think about mental and physical health. 

What happens in our head has a lot to do with what’s happening further south, in what scientists affectionately call ‘the brain in our gut’. It has a strong connection to the brain in our head and together, they are key players in mood, and mental health.

The brain in our gut, or the second brain as it is also called, is made up of more 200-600 million neurons, arranged in the intricately folded tissue that lines the gastrointestinal tract. With firepower like that, it’s not surprising that the gut does so much more than deal with food and the messier parts of being human.

It plays a critical role in mental and emotional functioning by sending information to the brain and directly influencing things like feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness, as well as memory, decision-making and learning. The brain in our gut is not capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our main brain, playing a critical role in our mental and emotional well-being.

Unhappy mind. Unhappy belly. Which comes first?

It’s no secret that anxiety, stress and depression often bring unhappy bellies with them, by way of irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, bloating and pain. For decades, doctors thought that stress, anxiety and depression were the cause, but now it seems that it’s actually the other way around. Irritation in the gastrointestinal system seems to send signals to the brain that trigger mood changes. We know that probiotics seem to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression and this might be why.

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The gut is not only important for physical health, it’s also critical for mental health. What’s fascinating is the direction of influence. The longest nerve exiting the brain is called the vagus (actually they are one pair of 12 pairs of nerves that run from the brain). It runs from the brainstem to the belly and touches the heart and most major organs along the way. Here’s the fascinating part. About 90% of the fibres in the vagus, carry information from the internal organs in the chest (such as the heart) and the abdomen to the brain, not the other way around. 

Our language holds evidence of this – we were talking about it well before we knew it. If you’ve ever been directed by ‘gut instinct’, ‘gone with your gut’ to make a decision, or ‘listened to your heart’, you’re likely getting signals from this second brain in your belly. 

Messages also travel the other way, from the brain to the heart and the gut, also via the vagus nerve but without a doubt, the main direction of information flow is from the gut to the brain. 

The Role of Gut Bacteria.

As well as neurons, there is another major player in the gut-brain connection – the 100 trillion bacteria that set up home inside your gut. According to professor of physiology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA, Emeran Mayer, gut bacteria contains phenomenal wisdom that gets sent to the brain. They affect our behaviour every minute of every day from the day we are born, and possibly before.

A Fascinating Study: From Extroversion to Introversion via the Gut

Mayer’s research has shown how the specific combinations of bacteria in the gut might influence the wiring of the brain, and in turn affect such things as temperament, mood and learning. Other researchers have also explored a possible connection between gut bacteria and behaviour, and they’ve made some remarkable discoveries.

In one study, when the gut bacteria of timid mice was transferred into the gut of extroverted mice those extroverted mice became more anxious. It also worked the other way. When the timid mice received the gut bacteria of the bold mice, the timid mice because more bold and extroverted. Aggressive mice calmed down when scientists adjusted the their gut bacteria by giving them probiotics or antibiotics.

Another Study: The Connection Between Gut Bacteria and Temperament

Research has found correlations between temperament and the presence of specific intestinal bacteria in toddlers, particularly boys. The connection was independent of history of breastfeeding, diet and the method of childbirth. Here’s what they found:

  • The children with the most genetically diverse types of gut bacteria were more positive, curious, sociable and impulsive.
  • In boys, extroversion was associated with an abundance of particular types of bacteria (Rikenellaceae and Ruminococcaceae families and Dialister and Parabacteroides genera).
  • In girls, self-restraint, cuddliness and focussed attention were associated with a lower diversity of gut bacteria.
  • Girls with an abundance of a particular family of bacteria (Rikenellaceae) seemed to be more fearful than girls who had a more balanced diversity of microbes.

This research is still in its early days, so we still don’t know what a healthy tummy would look like in terms of the combination of gut bacteria, or what factors would influence this. It is possible that the perfect balance of microbiome will vary for all of us. For this reason, the researchers caution against trying to change a child’s gut microbiome just yet.

The Gut and Depression.

Depression is widely attributed to a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for mood. What’s extraordinary is that only 5% of the body’s serotonin is stored in the brain. The other 95% of the body’s serotonin is stored in the gut. 

It’s not surprising then, that the most commonly used antidepressants that work on changing serotonin levels often come with a side of gastrointestinal issues. It’s also not surprising that the gut might play more of a role in depression than we yet realise. Research continues to look down this track for answers.

The Gut and Anxiety.

Researchers have found that young adults who eat more fermented foods (which contain probiotics) have fewer symptoms of social anxiety. As explained by Psychology Professor Matthew Milimire, ‘It is likely that the probiotics in the fermented foods are favourably changing the environment in the gut, and changes in the gut in turn influence social anxiety … the microorganisms in your gut can influence your mind.’

Food and the Comfort Factor.

The need for comfort rarely sees us diving for the celery. Pity. Instead, ‘comfort food’ tends to be high fat, high energy food. 

The relationship between food and mood isn’t all in our heads. Yes comfort food tastes delicious, smells delicious and might remind us of times we felt happy and secure, but there’s so much more to it than that, as a team of  Belgian researchers have shown.

The researchers delivered nutrients to the stomachs of participants via a nasogastric tube, with the intention of taking away the smells, tastes and memories that are typically associated with comfort food. The participants were given either ordinary saline solution or an infusion of fatty acids.  Without knowing what they were receiving through the tube, those who received the fatty acids reported half the levels of sadness and hunger compared to those who received the saline. This also showed up in brain scans. Very quickly after fatty acids hit the stomach, scans showed greater activity in the part of the brain that moderates emotions.

Stress and Food

Early research found that stressed-out mice would opt for a higher-fat food (peanut butter) over regular chow. Not surprisingly, they put on more weight than their less stressed friends. In times of stress, the gut amps up the production of ghrelin, a hormone that signals hunger to the brain. Research in humans has found similar results. In a recent study, couples were found to have significantly higher amounts of the appetite-triggering hormone following an argument. The researchers stop short of suggesting that unhealthy relationships cause poor food choices, but they acknowledge that the correlation is a strong one.

There seems to be little doubt that one of the ways stress influences behaviour is via the gut, specifically on the production of ghrelin, which sends messages to the brain around appetite and food choices.

Could gut bacteria be behind this?

Mayer points out that the last 50 years has seen a dramatic rise in autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinsons and obesity. All of these have altered gut bacteria and brain-gut interactions. At the same time, throughout the last fifty years, we have dramatically changed the way our food is produced and processed, and the way we use antibiotics. Has the way we’re doing things lead to the dramatic increases? At this stage, it’s only speculation, but it’s an area of research that is gaining traction.

Where to now?

Mental health is not all in our head. Neither is mental illness. Finally, science is giving us real proof of this. There is little doubt that mental and emotional health is influenced by the state of our gut. The research is exciting and is promising to revolutionise treatments for a range of conditions and the way we take care of our mental health.  

The research is constantly evolving, but what we know for sure is the importance of  being attentive to the state of the gut and doing what we can to keep it healthy. It holds our second brain, and quite possibly, one of the vital keys to our mental and emotional well-being.

73 Comments

Noeleen

Oh…. my son has so many problems with ADD and drug usage…THIS would help explain and stop his depression , drug use and self harm. Thank you.

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Suzanne

For years I had many problems associated with my bowels. Usually it was constipation and lack of motility. I saw many gastroenterologists who offered very little advice. As a child I had been on antibiotics constantly, my tonsils were removed at 5 1/2 but still I would vomit, nothing helped. It took until I was in my mid 50’s to find a specialist who did breath testing for lactose and fructose malabsorptions. I tested positive to fructose malabsorption and have been much healthier and happier for the past few years. Knowing why I had suffered for most of my life from anxiety had a huge positive affect on my mental health and outlook. Changing my diet and including the right type of fermented yoghurt has improved my quality of life enormously. My bowels still are a challenge at times but my outlook on life is so much more positive and my emotions are more controlled.

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Dave

Interesting, succinct and informative. This opens up a whole new way for me to look after myself.

Thanks for writing this article in a way that makes it easy to read and understand.

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Karen Young

Generally speaking, fermented foods and foods that contain probiotics and prebiotics are good for gut health and mental health. Here is an article with some examples https://www.heysigmund.com/a-simple-way-to-reduce-social-anxiety/. If you start including fermented foods in your diet, it’s important to do it slowly. The article on the link explains why. A naturopath would be able to help you with a diet that is tailored more for you and which is more targeted for your symptoms.

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Bulbul

I have been having a bad digestive health for years and now as I am changing my diet and adding probiotics I feel my mood shift. Anxiety and depression are surfacing as the bad bacteria is being released… enema can help cleanse the colonic bad bacteria. I always feel better after enema.

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Andrea

I’ve also felt gut problem ,but I couldn’t relate all this with stress……Even I didn’t know earlier that this is happening because of stress…..I’m taking antibiotic for two years….But I can feel that belly pain or gastronomy problem is happening after stress.Your article helped me more clearly to understand about second brain….Keep sharing more articles like these…..thank you.

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Judt

Thanks for this. It’s a great article. So what is the best diet or supplements to take?

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Shiraz

Hi, I first had loose watery stools and stomach gas for about 10 days and then got into depression. This shows that the gut plays a major part in mental illness from my experience. There can be other reasons but for me it is my stomach.

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Samantha

This. This relates so much with the Serotonin Power Diet that I have been on for the last three weeks and have seen significant changes to my health (for the better) than previously. I am so glad to see more and more concrete evidence of how it is that mental illnesses are just a result of chemical imbalances and what that all means.

Reply
Samantha

Best to look it up. High carb low fat diet. It worked well for me to get me out of the funk I was in at the time. That was four months ago. It is worth it to get out of the cycle of fatigue that you may find yourself in when life happens, but long term once your body starts feeling good again, you’ll need to start reducing it back to normal levels again.

Reply
Zorica

How would having a Gastric band effect the emotions/ depression/ anxiety based on your findings??? Please

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

It’s a very good question. I’m not familiar enough with the research around gastric banding to answer it though. A doctor or your specialist would be the best person to talk to about this.

Reply
Karthik

Thanks for this article.

My sister practices an ancient healing art called “VARMAM” … which is being practiced in India by a few. She was telling me that her patients with depression, anxiety, stress and mood swing symptoms … all of them invariably had a very bad stomach condition.

She just administered the touch healing points for the stomach … and they become perfectly alright on the 3rd day. All happy and smiling!

Certainly probiotics is a wonderful food. In India, we take buttermilk regularly in our meals, which helps in overall wellbeing.

God Bless your good work. Your articles are very very nice! My wife keeps reading all of them regularly.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thank you so much, and for sharing parts of your story. There are so many methods of healing that we need to learn more about. I love hearing when these are being practiced successfully.

Reply
Judith

I am so happy to read this. Posted immediately. For so long I’ve been (almost yelling) “It’s not mental – it’s physical!!!” unfortunately to those very hard of hearing. ie, the experts.

Validation is so so so sweet! Thank you

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Judith. They are absolutely physical and the research is proving it over and over. I just wish there wasn’t such a lag between the research and mainstream. There are too many things that are being treated with old knowledge, without accounting for the new things that science is discovering. All the best to you.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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