The second brain in your stomach: what it is, and six foods to eat to keep it happy

The second brain, located in your gut, is made up 500 million neurons, and stretches all the way from the oesophagus to the anus. It is a complete separate nervous system on its own, and can affect the body as well as the first’ brain.

Its influence is more far-reaching than was first thought, as more and more evidence is uncovering.

We’re all familiar with situations where the second brain takes over. Those tough days when you miss your alarm, run late for an important meeting, and when you finally get to it, realise you’ve left an important document at home.

You muddle through and when you come out of the meeting, you see a message on your mobile telling you that your tap is leaking and the kitchen floor is under water. Your significant other has already phoned the plumber but they can’t get there for hours. You check your inbox and there are 100 emails demanding your attention.

Frustrated, you take yourself out for lunch and instead of a salad or soup, you order stodge. We know it’s not the right choice but during stressful times we all turn to comfort food. This is the second brain in action.

You might have heard the term ‘hangry’ (being hungry and then getting angry) and thought of it as pop psychology (or just an excuse for rude behaviour). But scientists have explored this state that people claim to experience, and now research suggests that this is also an indication of the second brain in action.

What is the second brain?

When we speak of the second brain, what we are really talking about is the enteric nervous system (ENS), deep in the wall of the gut. Initially, this nervous system was thought only to control digestion. But now it has become clear that it also plays a huge role in the state of our physical wellbeing and our mental health too.

The second brain and the first brain can, and do, work in tandem with each other, but the second brain can also work independently and completely below the level of conscious thinking. The ENS is the biggest processer in our bodies of the environment we are in.

Dr. Michael Gershon, professor at Colombia-Presbyterian Medical Centre in New York, says: “A lot of the information that the gut sends to the brain affects wellbeing, and doesn’t even come to consciousness.”

Think of the feeling of getting butterflies in your stomach and you will know what he means.

The central nervous system running from the base of the brain proved to be less difficult to detect than the ENS, which is embedded in two layers of tissue and muscle in the gut. However, this is really the original nervous system and, for the very first vertebrates, was the only one. There is some speculation that it could have been the ENS that gave rise to what is now known as the first brain.

Six foods to eat for your second brain (enteric nervous system)

It is unreasonable to think that we will immediately and dramatically change our habits just because we are aware of our second brain. However, knowing that our second brain can have such a profound effect on our overall health means that being more conscious of what we eat is without doubt the best thing we can do.

It is no longer ‘a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips’; now, it’s a moment on the lips, a lifetime in every other part of the body.

Your second brain doesn’t have Rolls Royce tastes when it comes to what is good for it.

Garlic. It’s filled to the brim with anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, and does not agitate the gut’s ENS like some antibiotics can.

Asparagus. The gut loves asparagus for what it does for the levels of good bacteria found in it.

Beetroot. The layers of the gut that are home to the ENS are greatly supported and kept in optimum condition by beets in the diet. Beets are also nutrient powerhouses, and modern diets can lack magnesium. Beets are packed with it.

Bananas. These are a natural antacid, can help to prevent stomach ulcers, and are high in potassium, a mineral that we need for many functions including building protein and muscle, breaking down carbohydrates, and controlling the electrical activity of the heart.

Apples. The large intestine loves apples for their high levels of dietary fibre. And yes, an apple a day definitely helps keep the doctor away.

Sweet potatoes. One sweet potato can give your gut an injection of three of the things it loves the most: vitamin B6, potassium and iron.