New Research on the Enteric Nervous System

If you suffer from lingering depression, it may be helpful to consider what medical research is discovering about the complex network of neurons that line our gut. Some scientists are calling this “the second brain”, because unlike the rest of the central nervous system, the neurons of the gut – called the enteric nervous system, or ENS – do far more than simply regulate the movement of material through the digestive system . This enteric nervous system functions as a second brain, independent of the brain in our head, according to Professor Michael Gershon, chair of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University.

The mass of neural tissue in the gut has a more far-reaching influence than previously understood. While it does not help with thought processes or rational decision making; that occurs in the brain in our head, the “second brain” does partly determine our mental state and mood. It not only controls itself, it sends signals to the brain that influences memory, learning, decision-making and affects moods of sadness or feelings of stress.

In the enteric nervous system, sheaths of neurons are imbedded in the walls of the nine meter long tube of our gut, consisting of more neurons than in either the peripheral nervous system – which consist of the somatic nervous system and the autonomous nervous system – or the spinal cord. Over 30 neurotransmitters are involved in the gut, including serotonin. Dealing with the gut environment has been shown to provide significant relief from major depression.

It is well-known that food affects our emotions and mood. Foods like chocolate or macaroni and cheese are considered comfort foods; it has been thought that this is purely psychological, perhaps bringing back memories of Mom's cooking, or due to the savory taste or smell of food. However, research is showing something quite different; that specific components of food have a direct effect on the stomach neurohormones. The research reported in The Journal of Clinical Investigation showed that fatty acid foods lifted the emotional state and MRI scans showed activation of regions of the brain that moderate emotions, despite having the subjects view sad faces or listen to melancholy music known to elicit a low mood .

These neurohormones are only part of the picture. Medical research is showing that the 100 trillion or so bacteria that inhabit our gut, often referred to as probiotics, have a critical role to play. These friendly bacteria act as accessory DNA, working to produce their own enzymes and other products that help process our food. Canadian neuroscientist Jane Foster says,

“The gut biome is actually an interface between your diet and your genetics … Our genetics determines our predispositions, but the gut biome influences how these predispositions function on a day-to-day basis.”

Upon reviewing Dr. Foster's work, researchers have stated that “Modulation of the enteric microbiota may be a useful strategy” for treating inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, stress-related disorders and depression.

Fermented foods such as Kimchi and sauerkraut had once been traditional foods worldwide. However, modern diets include little of these foods which were once a significant part of our diet. In some preliminary studies to determine whether probiotics have any effect on emotional processing, and which strains are most effective, researchers found that brain scans taken before and after three weeks of probiotics showed a change in brain function in those that took the probiotics, whereas the control group that took a place shown no changes in brain function.

Ailments such as diabetes, irritable bowel disease, allergies, immune disorders, depression and anxiety have skyrocketed in the past few decades of the modern diet. The highly processed foods are empty of the kinds of bacteria that our bodies have relied on for all but the past few generations of human history.

We are only just discovering the “interior frontier” of our body, and learning more about the complex systems of the integrated body-mind connection. When we look for why we feel blue, it may help to look at how far we have moved away from Nature that sustained us for millennia. It is worthwhile to reconsider the quality of the foods we consume, including probiotic supplementation.

Because affordability is a major concern with getting real food, you may want to consider cooperative options such as a wholesale buying club, supporting your local organic growers and consumer supported agriculture. The Internet provides resources now where buying direct from the drawer can produce significant savings, even to the point of finding prices that are lower than the local chain grocery.

My family has gone back to some of the strategies that our great-grandsparents used; buying in bulk, putting up foods by canning, freezing or drying foods grown in the home garden or community gardens. If money and space is limited, get together to form your own neighborhood or extended family “food co-op” to share freezer space and make direct shipped bulk orders in quantities.

If you've struggled with depression that does not go away with time, you may find that the research about our enteric nervous system will provide some valuable ideas as to why you suffer from the blues, and offer some solutions.

I would love to hear from you about your experience with depression. What strategies have proven most effective for you to support self-healing? Please do share your experience with others in the Comments section below; others can benefit from your experience.

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