There is a ‘second brain’ in your belly and when you are stressed out, your gut takes a hit. Embedded in the walls of the gastrointestinal tract is a network of millions of nerve cells and brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that form the ‘second brain’ or enteric nervous system (ENS).
The brain in the head (central nervous system) and ENS continue to influence each other in many ways.
In fact, when you talk about ‘gut instinct’ or ‘vibes’ we get from people, or having ‘butterflies in your stomach’, it is the ‘second brain’ in action.
What also makes this ‘second brain’ special is the power it has over the process to transform food into fuel: it controls and governs the entire digestive system, from the oesophagus (food pipe) to the anus.
So when you are super stressed or depressed, the reaction is manifested through this ‘second brain’ more promptly than any other organ leading to gastrointestinal (GI) disorders such as stomach ulcers and diarrhoea. (Wondered why you are struck down with a bout of diarrhoea just before an exam or an interview ?)
Now, a team of scientists from CSIR’s Indian Institute of Chemical Biology has zeroed in on the molecular mechanism that links GI complications and acute mental stress.
Investigating stress related mucosal disease (SRMD), a post-traumatic disorder where patients suffer from gastric injury and bleeding, they discovered that mitochondria (the power house of cells) are specifically damaged.
In a domino effect, this blow to the mitochondria in cells of the stomach harms the stomach lining, which leads to GI complications, such as stomach ulcers and bleeding.
Armed with this revelation, the team has proposed an alternative therapeutic strategy that specifically preserves mitochondrial health as well as morphology and provides significant protection from stress, even bypassing the use of tranquilisers or antipsychotics.
The proposed therapeutic approach deals with specific use of mitochondrial antioxidants and molecules that takes care of mitochondrial health. This idea can be exploited by pharmaceutical companies to synthesise new generation anti-stress medications with minimal side effects. – Uday Bandyopadhyay, IICB’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology
The study published in journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine has implications for critically ill patients of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) who experience moderate to acute mucosal (stomach lining) bleeding.
It is one of the most common stress-associated phenomena and the mortality rate is surprisingly high. But there is no specific medications to address it. – Uday Bandyopadhyay
Second Brain and Psychosomatic Disorders
The ‘second-brain’ connect also comes into play when physicians have to deal with psychosomatic disorders.
Psychosomatic disorder refers to physical disease or symptom that is thought to be caused or made worse by mental factors.
Patients as also physicians are often thrown into a quandary when mental factors such as stress cause physical symptoms but there is no real physical disease.
There are a variety of cases that exemplify the mind-body link. For example, many patients turn up believing they have heart problems which ultimately turn out to be stress-induced cardiac symptoms.Dr Jai Ranjan Ram, Psychiatrist, Apollo Gleneagles Hospital, Kolkata
Ram says that gastro-intestinal disease experts will often point out that about 30 per cent of incidences of abdominal pain or irritable bowel syndrome they examine, are psychosomatic in origin.
The Mind-Body Connect
While integrating mind-body health forms the core of Ayurveda and other health systems, it is the Western medicine system that views them separately.
It was the 17th century French philosopher René Descartes who put forth the mind-body dualism thesis (that mind and body are distinct and separable).
“It is important to listen to first-contact patients and recognise signs of mental disorders. A quick interview is often not enough to gauge the real cause. – Dr Jai Ranjan Ram
Ultimately, it is what goes on at the cellular level that shows up on surface as tummy upsets, irritable bowel syndrome or gastric ulcer etc. “The current research linking the mitochondria inside the cell strengthens the mind-body connect,” Ram explains.
However, there is a chink in the chain.
Patients often refuse to accept that a mental health related factor may be the real reason for their physical discomfort. So that is another aspect to it
According to clinical psychologist Mahendra P Sharma, the mind-body link is increasingly becoming accepted as part of clinical practice. He says the mitochondrial link is interesting in the vast of body of work around the subject and should be investigated further to integrate it into practice.
Sharma also drew attention to the deepening ‘nature versus nurture’ debate in solving the mental illness puzzle.
There is a growing body of work linking early childhood stresses such as abuse, trauma, parental absence and neglect to specific genetic risk factors. Research has shown strong associations of early life stress to the development of mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and even higher risk of suicide later on in adulthood.
Dr Sharma, who heads the Department of Clinical Psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, says,
One can’t deny the significance of biological or genetic factors. So we have to have a range of therapeutic options in our arsenal whether its at the cellular level or behavioural level. – Dr Mahendra P Sharma
One such therapy that is catching on is reattribution theory where the patient is encouraged to transfer blame. It revolves around exploring alternative causes for events/disasters in a way that eases off the burden off you or calms you down.
“It doesn’t mean shying away from owning up to one’s mistake. Sometimes when you help patients recognise that things can go beyond their control, it helps them deal with the building stress, before it snowballs to something bigger. We have to look at different ways to manage physical symptoms and emotional well being,” Sharma says.
(Sahana Ghosh is a microbiologist-turned-journalist. She writes on science and environment and is interested in science in remote areas.)