Our ‘second brain’, the gut as an important link between brain and body

The saying ‘trust your gut’ refers to following your intuition, but as Dr Martin Stebbing explains it, the saying goes a lot deeper.

He believes the phrase was born out of the uncomfortable physical symptoms we experience when something isn’t working quite right in the gut. He recently discussed why it’s important to listen to our gut and why this incredibly intelligent organ is commonly referred to as our ‘second brain’ with Brian Nankervis on ABC Radio Melbourne.

Dr Stebbing, Head of the Electroceuticals Research Laboratory at The Florey, explains that the gut and the brain communicate through several channels of communication, made easier thanks to similar types of neurons and neurotransmitters in both organs.

“While hormones and the bacteria that live in your gut are recognised as key players involved in gut and brain communication, the third and biggest player is the passage of communication that lies in the nerves that make up our enteric nervous system,” said Dr Stebbing.

This system is a key feature of Dr Stebbing’s research at the Florey Institute. His research helps to understand how communication from our ‘second brain’ regulates our gastrointestinal function, influences immune response and how it generates physical symptoms when our gut or our brain is under stress.

Digestive problems and associated conditions like heartburn, gastric reflux, nausea or constipation are all symptoms that indicate something is amiss somewhere in the axis between our gut and our brain. Understanding why the enteric nervous system is under stress and rectifying this is key to preventing these symptoms from developing further into chronic stomach diseases, like gastroparesis and functional dyspepsia.

Finding better ways to treat these debilitating conditions is a focus of Dr Stebbing’s current work. His team are investigating the beneficial effects of using implanted devices in the gut that deliver electrical stimulation to modify the function of the nervous system and offer relief to people.

“Where possible, it’s much easier preventing diseases and disorders of the gut than curing them. Simple lifestyle choices like having a healthy diet, doing regular exercise and avoiding smoking can maintain good gut health and help to prevent more serious diseases before they develop,” said Dr Stebbing.

“By becoming more comfortable talking about our gut and its functions and understanding the signals that it gives us, we can work to prevent gut illness and the complications that arise from associated diseases. Understanding gut-brain communication can provide insight into a range of neurological diseases with these discoveries unlocking new pathways to prevention or treatment,” said Dr Stebbing.

Learn more by listening to the full episode which aired on ABC Radio Melbourne on 19 August 2021.