Did you know that your body has a second brain in your digestive system? It is called the enteric nervous system (ENS) and it controls the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract. Although the ENS is capable of local and independent function, it has extensive two-way connections with the central nervous system (CNS), your first brain.(1)
Ayurveda, the 5000-year old natural medicine of India, has also recognized this gut-brain connection. According to ayurveda, the mind is controlled by Prana Vata, which is a subdosha of Vata, one of the 3 ayurvedic principles that describe everything in nature. The abdomen is controlled by Apana Vata, which is another subdosha of Vata. So both the mind and the abdomen are controlled by Vata.
In addition, the ayurvedic doctors discovered, that these two subdoshas (Prana and Apana) are intricately connected and usually go out of balance together. Either one can lead the way. Prana Vata imbalance in the mind can cause problems in the large intestine, colon, and reproductive organs. Similarly, an Apana Vata imbalance can cause disturbances in the mind, head, neck and lungs.
As it turns out, the intelligence of the second brain comes from an ecosystem of trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms residing mainly in the intestines. These organisms live in a mutually beneficial relationship with the human body and are collectively called the microbiota.(2) This collection of microorganisms protects us against pathogens, metabolizes complex fats, proteins, carbohydrates and minerals, manufactures vitamins, neutralizes drugs and carcinogens. They are also able to activate neural pathways and the signaling systems of the CNS.(3) In addition, the second brain manufactures most of the body’s feel-good hormones such as serotonin, the happiness hormone.(4)
An increasing amount of modern research confirms that imbalances in the gut microbiota may cause cognitive and neurological disorders(5). Mood disorders, anxiety, autoimmune disorders, multiple sclerosis(6), and autism(7) may all be related to the altering of the microbiota.
The microbial ecosystem, just like any ecosystem, is sensitive to outside influences. The harmful influences include antibiotics, pesticides, the modern American diet rich in refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, and chemical-laden processed foods. The beneficial influences include fresh, organic whole foods, healthy eating habits, and probiotics.
Ayurveda has long been aware of these solutions which are part of the standard recommendations for health and longevity. Probiotics are also part of the ayurvedic diet in the form of the popular yogurt drink called lassi. Lassi is yogurt mixed with water and spices and is traditionally consumed with meals.
In light of this connection between the brain and the digestive system, it is clear that our digestion plays a significant role in our mental health and happiness. Ayurveda puts an emphasis on balancing digestion first, before addressing any imbalances. A strong and healthy digestive system will not only provide the body with the nourishment it needs, it will also supply the brain the nutrients and hormones it needs to function properly.
4. Grain Brain, David Perlmutter & Kristin Loberg, Little, Brown and Company, pp 235-36