The Enteric Nervous System (ENS), a complex system of about 100 million nerves lining of the gut is often considered the “second brain” on the account that it actually arises from the same tissues as Central Nervous System (CNS) during foetal development and therefore, has many structural and chemical similar to the brain.
The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) has the ability to synchronise the complex functions of the gut such as transit of food throughout the intestine, secretion of digestive enzymes, absorption of nutrients, gut hormonal release, gut as an immune system and gut mucus secretion.
The brain is connected to the gut via the autonomic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis or HTPA axis).
This complex circuitry of neurons, hormones, and chemical neurotransmitters not only sends messages to the brain about the status of one’s gut, it also allows for the brain to directly impact the gut environment. In short, the gut still depends very much on the brain, but due to its complex function and ability to self-regulate to a large extent, thus, it is called the second brain.
Research has shown that the body is actually composed of about 100 trillion bacteria compared to 30 trillion cells. There are 1000 bacterial species and 100 times more genes in them compared to the human genome.
Like any ecosystem inhabited by competing species, the environment within the gut dictates which inhabitants will flourish. The nervous system, through its ability to affect gut physiology, can help dictate which microbes inhabit the gut. This phenomenon describes how intrinsic and external factors like stress, toxins, chemicals, certain diets, and even exercise fluctuates our microbiome (microorganisms in an environment) for better or worse.
The gut microbiota (otherwise known as gut flora) influences the body’s level of serotonin that regulates feelings of happiness which functions similarly to some anti-anxiety drugs.
It is also interesting to note that a baby born via natural delivery has different microbiota colonising the gut compared to Caesarean babies. The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ where lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents and parasites increases allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system, has been shown to have different disease manifestation as they grow.
The metabolic activities performed by these bacteria resemble those of an organ, leading some to liken gut bacteria to a ‘forgotten’ organ. This hypothesis has brought about the potential of harnessing the intestinal microbiota for therapeutic purposes resulting in the use of pro- and prebiotics. Imbalance in the gut ecosystem, also known as dysbiosis is strongly linked to diabetes, obesity, bowel diseases and carcinogenesis by means of alteration in host physiology, metabolism, immune function, depression and anxiety.
Inappropriate diet with altered fats in food products and increased consumption of carbohydrates, obesity, psychological stress, vitamin D deficiency, pollution (dioxins) and drinking highly chlorinated water could harm our gut health.
Increased use of over-the-counter products and medications such as mouthwashes, aspirin, antacids, painkillers, and laxatives may harm gut health as well. Dramatic changes in our sanitation procedures, including widespread use of cleansers—particularly antibacterial soaps, shampoos, creams, pesticides, herbicides and douches is also a contributing factor.
The use of excessive colon cleanses, surgeries and chemotherapy or radiation therapy is detrimental to a healthy gut.
Exposure to pollutants such as heavy metals, including amalgam dental fillings, artificial food colouring and prescription drugs (antibiotics, antidepressants, sleeping pills and statins) could aggravate dysbiosis.
Eating to beat disease will the first step. Citrus fruits, fibre-rich foods, leafy greens and yellow vegetables prevent gastrointestinal malignancies. Also, try to to consume about 20 to 25 grams of fibre a day.
Helping the good bugs to proliferate will be the second step. Consuming natural probiotics containing food such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, bananas, garlic, asparagus, kimchi and onions helps to balance the dysbiosis. Choosing food known as prebiotics that naturally contain lots of soluble fibre, such as bananas, garlic, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, honey, leeks, kefir and onion helps form a base for probiotic colonisation of the gut.
According to Michael Gänzle, Canada Research Chair in food microbiology and probiotics at the University of Alberta, there is no difference between probiotics taken as a supplement and those in food.
In practice, it is easier to keep high cell counts during the product’s shelf life if they are in a supplement. Experts recommend the use of product that contains one million to one billion live cultures. The most commonly used probiotic agents are bacteria from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium Genera and the yeast Saccharomyces Cerevisiae.