Your Body’s Second Brain: Your Intestine’s Incredible, but Little Known Ability

The body's 'first' and 'second' brains.
Another 'brain' deserves the spotlight — the intestines, often termed the human body’s 'second brain.' (Image: metamorworks via Shutterstock)

Have you ever heard the term “second brain”? It sounds strange, considering that in biology classes, you are taught that we only have one brain. However, the magic of the human body unfolds further as we delve deep into the fascinating anatomy and the intricate networks that keep us functioning. Most of us know of the brain’s dominance in the human body, housing the highest density of neurons.

The brain is the control center, processing everything from perception and thinking to movement. However, another “brain” deserves your spotlight — the intestines, often termed the human body’s second brain.

A glimpse into your second brain — your intestines

Yes, you read that right. Your intestines are more than just digestion powerhouses; they are a hotbed of neurons, second only to the brain! This revelation stems from scientific research that has explored the depths of the human body.

The intestines possess remarkable autonomy, operating independently through a sophisticated network of neurons lining their walls. This network is known as the enteric nervous system, a part of the autonomic nervous system, often called the body’s “second brain.” It manages the entire digestive process autonomously, functioning without the need for direct commands from the brain. This intricate system underscores the intestines’ incredible capacity to act independently, playing a pivotal role in your overall health and well-being.

A 3D rendering of microvilli in the intestinal tract.
The enteric nervous system manages the entire digestive process through a sophisticated network of neurons that line the walls of the intestines. (Image: Troyan via Shutterstock)

Historically, the connection between your intestines and overall health has been recognized, albeit not fully understood until recent scientific endeavors. Pioneers like Byron Robinson and Johannes Langley laid the groundwork, unveiling the capacity of the enteric nervous system to function independently.

Yet, it was not until the 1990s, with the rise of neuro-gastroenterology, that the concept of the belly harboring a “second brain” gained momentum, thanks to Michael Gershon’s groundbreaking work.

The fascinating functions of the second brain

So what exactly does this second brain do? Aside from overseeing digestion, Gershon’s research highlights its role as an information reservoir, influencing your mental processes. It regulates the speed of digestion, monitors food qualities, and adjusts the secretion of digestive juices. Interestingly, about 90 percent of signals transmitted via the vagus nerve originate from this enteric system, underpinning its significant impact on your overall health.

The second brain doesn’t stop there; it’s intricately tied to your emotional well-being, influencing your food choices during stress or bad moods. Furthermore, it’s the body’s largest endocrine organ, secreting hormones such as dopamine and serotonin that are pivotal in regulating your emotions. Astonishingly, 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is synthesized in the intestines!

Woman sitting and eating unhealthy food.
The ‘second brain’ is intricately tied to your emotional well-being, influencing your food choices during stress or bad moods. (Image: Doucefleur via Shutterstock)

The emotional intelligence of the second brain

The deep connection between your emotions and the “second brain” underscores its significance beyond digestion.

Ancient Chinese wisdom, encapsulated in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, explains how emotions impact various organs, including this powerful gastrointestinal system.

Modern science increasingly aligns with this understanding, recognizing the bidirectional communication between your brain and intestines. This explains why experiences of stress or depression often manifest in gastrointestinal symptoms and vice versa.

Furthermore, the potential of biofeedback therapy to improve gastrointestinal issues by leveraging the mental effects showcases the interconnectedness of your body’s systems.

The narrative that problems in one organ can cascade to others reinforces the holistic view of health, where understanding and nurturing the “second brain” can lead to profound benefits across both our physical and emotional landscapes.

As we continue to unravel the mysteries of our bodies, the realization that your intestines serve as a powerful second brain opens up exciting avenues for improving your well-being. This reveals the intricate balance and unity within your body.

Translated by Joseph Wu

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  • Hermann Rohr

    Hermann Rohr is a Travel, Lifestyle, and Culture, journalist based in Leverkusen, Germany. He has always been interested in the "human state", what keeps the world together and moves it from within. These days, Hermann spends most of his creative time, editing, writing and filming outstanding content for Nspirement.