• Robb G. Best

Your mysterious second brain has a message for you…

“Woman Saves Daughter's Life with Her own Feces”.

That eye-grabbing headline graced the newspaper of the woman next to me on my flight from Minneapolis to New York earlier this week. I didn't have the chutzpah to read the whole thing over her shoulder, but I assume the article had to do with the bacterium known as Clostridium difficile, or C. diff.

According to the staff at Mayo Clinic, C. diff "can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon." Worse, "[i]n recent years, C. difficile infections have become more frequent, more severe and more difficult to treat."

Interestingly, one of the successful treatments for eliminating C. diff is to transplant a fecal sample from a healthy individual into the patient's gut. The antibodies from the fecal matter then wipe out the C. diff bacterium. Hopefully, this was what the newspaper headline was getting at.

Quick, when was the last time you thought about your digestive system?

It's a world we only tend to notice when we eat one too many slices of pepperoni pizza, or when our extra-spicy Pad Thai comes back to haunt us in the middle of the night. Our inability to balance our eating habits has created a billion-dollar industry of products designed to ease our often self-induced stomach maladies.

But the gut does some astounding, important work. It's a thankless job, never inspiring the attention or respect we lavish on the command and control center we call our brain. And Professor Heribert Watzke, TED talker, scientist and food researcher, thinks it’s time we give the gut its rightful due.

Recent research by Watzke and others has shed a new light on the amazingly sophisticated organs hidden in your middle. Your stomach, intestines, and colon (collectively, the gut) are wired into and part of the limbic system, sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain or subconscious emotional brain.

There is a lot of action going on down in bowels of your body. For one thing, evolution has done a heck of a packing job. If your intestines were uncoiled and stretched out end to end, they would cover the length of a tennis court. In addition to that rather unpleasant visual, the gut has 500 million nerve cells and 100 million neurons.

However, by comparison, the average adult has 100 billion neurons in his or her brain. In terms of complexity, the wiring of your digestive system, or gut brain, compares favorably to the brain of a common house cat. But unlike the independent cat, the gut brain plays a subservient role to the big brain, a.k.a. the contents of your skull.

So what is the relationship between big brain and gut brain? Waztke borrowed his model from the burgeoning field of robotics:

"It’s called Subsumption Architecture. What it means is that we have a layered control system. The lower layer, our gut brain, has its own goals--digestion defenses—and we have the higher brain with the goal of integration and generating behaviors. The big brain integrates signals, which come form the running program of the lower gut brain."

Your big brain can also override communications and orders from the gut brain. For example, when your gut brain sends the message that you feel full, your big brain might choose to listen and stop you from eating more, or it might decide to power through those chicken wings, setting you up for a late-night antacids run.

Watzke’s research team is trying to understand how to improve the power and signaling from the gut brain to create a better balance between both communication centers. The implications are far-reaching for societies where overconsumption can be not just a nuisance but a significant health risk.

Thinking about the gut as a mini second brain is heady stuff. (No pun intended,) It certainly elevates the gut to new heights. It almost makes me want to go out and get a T-shirt that says, “My gut is smarter than your cat.”

My apologies, cat lovers…


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