Your Guts Are An Emotional Center

There are a lot of reasons to eat moderate amounts of good, healthy food.

Eating healthfully, however, can be challenging to do consistently. Anyone who has tried and failed at a diet can attest to this. It’s a daily conflict between the desirability of eating healthy against the taste and convenience of junk food.

As they say, anything worthwhile ain’t easy.

One big reason that can make the effort worthwhile is in the interest of the optimal functioning of the little-known enteric nervous system. This system consists of brain tissue found in the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. It’s a neural network acting independently from the main brain, the one in your head. Information about this body system has been emerging over the last 25 years, notably with the publication of The Second Brain by Michael Gershon.

There are 100 million neurons in the enteric nervous system, far more than the 13.5 million in the human spinal cord. This makes sense because the enteric nervous system is huge. It starts in the esophagus and ends in the anus.

Because it’s brain tissue, it works like a brain. The enteric nervous system sends and receives impulses. It remembers. It responds to emotions. The chemical messengers, known as neurotransmitters, even transmit messages like the neurotransmitters in the big brain. This second brain even makes important compounds like serotonin.

While it’s sometimes called the “second brain” that term is confusing. It’s interconnected neural tissue. The enteric nervous system isn’t centralized in any one place like the brain or spinal cord.

It’s classified as part of the autonomic nervous system.

That the enteric nervous system exists is a well-known scientific fact. It’s not widely known because it’s relatively new, like the glymphatic system.

Many people put the idea of the enteric nervous system out of their heads. The idea of two brains makes the human body sound like some kind of monster out of a 1950s science fiction movie.

Ohmygod! Its brain is in the middle of its body!!!

Thinking about having a second brain in the digestive system is too damn alien.

It makes sense, however. Digesting food is too important of a function to completely control from the main brain. This second collection of neural tissue is right there in the middle of the action.

So go ahead. Forget about the enteric nervous system. Think of it as an emotional center, right along with the limbic system in the main brain. It’s that too.

We know about the enteric nervous system almost instinctively

There are a lot of expressions in many different languages relating emotion and the stomach.

In English, when we feel bad, we eat “comfort food.”

We talk about “gut feelings” when something isn’t right.

Saying “I can’t stomach this” means you’re emotionally against something.

Saying “it makes me want to vomit” means you’re really, really against something.

“I have butterflies in my stomach,” doesn’t mean you’ve ate more than one butterfly. It means you’re nervous in English-speaking countries and the equivalent in Mexico and some other Spanish-speaking countries.

In French, there are also many expressions relating to emotion and the stomach.

Rester sur l’estomac (literally “rest on the stomach”) refers to news that’s difficult to digest.

Des querelles intestines (quarrel of the intestines) relates the conflict that occurs within someone when they eat something that doesn’t agree with them to infighting within a group.

In Polish, wiercić komuś dziurę w brzuchu, means to “drill a hole in someone’s stomach.” This idiom refers to annoying someone with pointless, useless questions.

The Japanese say hara ga tatsu, and speak of someone’s stomach standing up as a way of saying they’re getting angry.

In Mandarin Chinese, they say 满腹牢骚 (mǎn fù láo sāo) which refers to having a “belly full of complaints” or being especially cantankerous.

GERD, other digestive difficulties, and sleep

As more is known about the interplay between your two brains, physical symptoms start to make sense.

The enteric nervous system monitors toxins in foods. When things aren’t right. It greatly increases the amount of serotonin in your stomach and you end up with diarrhea which protects you from sickness.

When you’re anxious, your body releases adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. That’s what’s causing the fluttery feeling.

According to clinical trials, psychiatric medication acts on the GI system very frequently. Sometimes this leads to constipation, sometimes to diarrhea.

Narcotics can act on the main brain and the gut-brain. Both brains can become addicted. Narcotics decrease intestinal movement. This leads to constipation.

Problems like irritable bowel syndrome and colitis start from systemic breakdowns in the enteric nervous system.

GERD can have a lot of causes but it’s affected by the enteric nervous system too.

Use your second brain

When you add all this up, maybe you get a little more motivation to eat only modest amounts of healthy food. Eating healthfully will help your stomach work better. This will help your enteric nervous system work better. This will help you sleep better which will help both of your brains. It will help your body function as well as it can. It simply makes sense to try to do the best you can.

Also on the blog:

Learn anatomy and physiology before you need it

Your opinions form when you sleep and you should know what those opinions are

When should you trust your gut feelings about someone?

Tired all the time? How’s your Vitamin D?


James Cobb, RN, MSN, is an emergency department nurse and the founder of the Dream Recovery System. His goal is to provide his readers with simple, actionable ways to improve their health and maximize their quality of life. 

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