For many people who have anxiety and depression, the conventional wisdom is to see a mental health professional, maybe a prescription for antidepressants; but what about treating the second brain, our microbiome? The gut microbiome, a diverse collection of trillions of fungi and bacteria in the intestines, has earned the title the second brain for its ability to function independently of the central nervous system and its impact on mood. Understanding the complexities of the gut microbiome, aka the second brain, is also important in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs).

The scientific name for our second brain is the enteric nervous system (ENS). The human ENS consists of two thin mesh-like layers and 500 million neurons, which is five times as many neurons found in the spinal cord. The ENS runs through the gastrointestinal tract beginning at the esophagus and ending at the rectum. The neurons of the ENS communicate using the same types of hormones as the central nervous system, including dopamine and serotonin. 

For many years medical providers believed that gastrointestinal problems, like IBS, constipation, diarrhea, and stomach pain, were caused by psychological issues such as anxiety or depression. But according to Dr. Jay Pasricha, stomach issues may be caused by psychological issues. In an interview with John Hopkins Medical Center, Dr. Pasricha states “These new findings may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety,”

This new understanding of the gut microbiome’s role as the second brain is a significant consideration in seeking medical treatment. Currently, we are facing a chicken-or-egg scenario. It is unclear whether anxiety causes gastrointestinal problems, or if gastrointestinal problems cause anxiety. The research suggests that certain medications and mental health practices, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and meditation, relieve GI issues because they improve neuron transmissions not only in the brain, but also in the gut. Dr. Pasricha also suggests that the digestive system may play a role in cognition and memory. 

Gastrointestinal problems are not the only issues caused by dysbiosis, a microbial imbalance in the gut microbiome. Other issues also include Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and potentially Alzheimer’s disease.

Undoubtedly, the gut microbiome has significant health implications, both for daily life as well as in preventative long term care. Gut health begins with what we eat. Prebiotics, including a variety of fruits and vegetables, help to feed the healthy bacteria in the gut; while probiotics, such as kombucha, help to restore balance. Daily exercise is also an important factor.