Many of us think the nervous system and the digestive system are two distinctly different networks. It turns out the nervous system is not purely contained in the brain and spinal cord. Whereas the central nervous system does consist of those two organs, there is a secondary system in the human body called the enteric system.
This two-layer lining that goes from the esophagus to the rectum has more than 100 million nerve cells that are constantly in touch with the brain. So much so that the enteric system is often referred to as “the second brain.” This is why just thinking about eating a warm chocolate chip cookie can cause your stomach to rumble, or the very idea of speaking in front of a room full of strangers can make you feel like vomiting.
It’s not purely psychological—there is a very real physiological connection, only now being more fully understood by researchers.
For years, scientists thought the two systems communicated solely via hormones, but recently it was discovered that some endocrine cells also make physical contact with the enteric nervous system, forming synapses with nerves.
The discovery first began by doing research on chickens at North Carolina State University. By introducing enzymes into the amniotic fluid prior to a chick’s birth, the scientists altered the bird’s eating and behavior after hatching. The unfed chicks mostly slept, while the pre-fed chicks were more alert and went directly to food consumption. Additional and highly complex research was subsequently conducted with mice and the rabies virus.
The upshot of this ongoing research has little to do with chicken or mice and everything to do with how we treat disorders and conditions, specifically eating disorders. Historically viewed as mental illnesses, eating disorders are increasingly seen as having a biologically-driven component. With greater understanding of the brain/gut connection, we may completely rethink how we treat eating disorders through the use of innovative microbiome-based interventions.
This therapy might also extend to the treatment of obesity, anorexia, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, autism and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).