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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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