The Enteric Nervous System: Why is it significant for mental health?

Have you ever heard of the Enteric Nervous System? I hadn’t either until a few years ago. The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) serves as a deeply important part of our overall health, as it impacts the movement and flexion of the Gastrointestinal system running from the esophagus all the way to the rectum.

You may (or may not) be familiar with the two more well-known aspects of our Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic (used for our fight, flight resources) and Parasympathetic (our rest and digest resource). The Enteric Nervous System is also part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), but it has now been recognized as its own branch, since it can function without the other branches of the ANS.

Photo by sankalpmaya/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by sankalpmaya/iStock / Getty Images

A few key things to know about the Enteric Nervous System would be:

  • It has more nerve cells than your entire spinal cord

  • 90% or more of the bodies Serotonin and half of the bodies Dopamine lies in the gut

    • Serotonin plays a key role in regulating mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function

    • Dopamine is correlated with our reward-motivated behavior and impacts body movements as well as emotional responses

  • There are many conditions associated with Enteric Nervous System such as:

    • Irritable Bowel Syndrome

    • Crohn’s and other forms of Colitis

    • Reflux, Acid Reflux, and more…

      • (References from video link below)

This means is that the gut (and more exactly the Enteric Nervous System) really is the bodies second brain.

Why is this significant?

For too long psychology has functioned as if we are floating heads, and it has ignored the constant and significant interplay of the mind and body. Candace Pert PhD, a neuroscientist who discovered how emotions are stored at a neuropeptide level within the body writes:

“Most psychologists treat the mind as disembodied, a phenomenon with little or no connection to the physical body. Conversely physicians treat the body with no regard to the mind or the emotions. But the body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other”.

Not only are the mind and body not separate, but research into the Enteric Nervous System shows that the mind is IN the body. Because the neurotransmitter’s Dopamine and Serotonin are responsible for our mood and our bodily functions, and are predominantly located within the belly, this part of the body must be engaged if we are to pursue holistic healing. The ENS does have the ability to function on its own; however, because of its proximity and correlation to the PSNS and SNS it is impacted by the bodies state of stress vs. rest. This means that taking care of our gut involves what we eat, but it also involves the stress that we are surrounded by.

  • Ways to assist the functioning of your ENS:

    • Eat whole, unprocessed foods

    • Learn if you have any food allergies or intolerance and avoid such foods

    • Find ways to build up your digestive enzymes through probiotics

    • Allow yourself to have moments of relaxation:

      • Take a walk in nature and find a peaceful place to sit and just be

      • Take a bath with some essential oils and calming music

      • Participate in a yoga or mindfulness class

    • Talk to a somatically informed mental health counselor if you have felt a state of stress, anxiety, or depression

    • Get exercise in order to assist your bodies boosts of feel-good hormones

Gut issues and sensitivities, just like mood concerns, should not be ignored. The good news there is hope if you have struggled with issues such as constipation, diarrhea, IBS, or other gastrointestinal issues. The body never lies, and if you have struggled with any of these the chance is your body is communicating something to you. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope you continue to take the next few moments to listen to your gut. Listen to the rumblings or the stillness. Listen to the movement or congestion. What may your gut be telling you about your mental and physical state of wellbeing? All the best on your journey to healing!

((I am not a medical doctor and the above is based on personal research and opinion. It is not intended for medical advice. You should always consult your doctor when it comes to physical health.))