Glenn Goldman, MA, LPC
Experienced, affordable counseling in Portland, Oregon



The Brain in Your Belly

Science is uncovering some fascinating facts about your gut! There are more nerve cells associated with your digestive system than anywhere in your body outside of your brain. In fact, some researchers have started referring to the digestive system as the “second brain.” This makes sense. Digestion is an intricate operation that involves complex chemical secretions, well-coordinated muscle contractions, and elegant feedback systems to regulate the whole process. 

Most of our pre-verbal experience of physiological distress centers on digestion. Stomach and intestinal discomfort is often the reason why babies fuss and cry. What they’re looking for in those instances is comfort and relief. Holding the baby while gently rubbing and patting is usually all that’s required for soothing to be effective. We can see in this illustration a powerful relationship between how a developing human feels in her belly, her emotional state, and her connection to loved ones.

As adults, we still experience a tremendous amount of emotion in our bellies. People talk about having “butterflies in my stomachs,” feeling as if they’ve been “punched in the gut,” being “sick to my stomach,” having a “gut instinct,” etc. These experiences are different from the thought process, which can be described as an internal stream of associated ideas formulated through language. The nerve cell activity of thought is localized in the brain in our heads. But now we know that much of the nerve cell activity of feeling is located in the "brain" in our bellies. We can see, then, that both processes contain important and valid information for us to pay attention to.

I believe that the relationship between our digestion and our emotional state works both ways: A sense of emotional balance and centeredness positively impacts our digestive system, and a healthy, well-functioning digestive system positively impacts our emotional sense of well-being. Learning how to “listen” to our gut, therefore, becomes important for our overall health. Simple behavioral changes can make a difference. Eating a healthier diet with more whole and fewer processed foods, and taking a high-quality probiotic supplement are just two scientifically proven ways of improving digestive, and hence emotional health. Learning simple relaxation techniques, and reaching out for emotional comfort from others are just two ways of improving emotional, and hence digestive health.