Our Second Brain: The Enteric Nervous System
The Enteric NS is the second most complex neuron network in our body apart from our brain and is hidden in the walls of our digestive system, it is known as our 'second brain'.
The ENS has two thin layers lining the GI tract from oesophagus to rectum. These have bi-directional pathways involving the Vagus nerve and the Hypothalamus-Pituitary axis (stress communication pathway). This is known as the Brain-Gut Axis and it runs from your brain to your enteric nervous system and involves connection through chemicals, hormones and immune messages.
The ENS processes the speed of food, how we absorb and digest the food and the blood flow in our gut. Its an interplay between the ENS and the brain, through the Brain Gut Axis. Basically, the Brain Gut Axis links emotional and cognitive functions of our brain with the functioning of our Enteric Nervous System.
Hence, when we are feeling anxious, we may feel churned up in the belly, or alternatively, we may get a 'gut feeling' about something. Digestive issues such as bloating can also interact in this bi-directional pathway. We can become more sensitive to distress in our gut, increasing our discomfort during IBS.
Often in functional gut disorders, such as IBS, your brain-gut axis doesn’t work the way it is mean to. This can affect movement through your gut and the perception of sensitivity and pain. It may mean that the signals aren’t quite right, for example you may experience hunger as pain signals, or you may have become overly sensitised to mild pain and discomfort signals. You may find that if you suffer with stress, anxiety and depression that your symptoms worsen. Essentially, every emotion you experience consciously and subconsciously is mirrored in your gut.
What does this mean for you? Having a brain-gut axis dsyfunction does not mean that ‘this is in your head’. It means that although there is no underlying pathology, your brain gut axis just isn’t working the way it is meant to.
Gut-directed hypnosis and therapy actually aim to normalise brain-gut axis functioning. A recent study at Monash Medical Centre (which developed the low-FODMAP diet with Sue Shepherd) found that Gut-directed hypnosis was as equally effective as a low-fodmap
diet and people can experience a reduction in symptoms up to 70%. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also help with normalising gut symptoms and research also supports this. Hypnosis aims to weaken the conscious, often negative, hypersensitive communication with the brain-gut axis and replace it with a more positive, calmer, less reactive communication pathway.