Did you know that you have a second brain in your belly and that it plays a vital role in both your physical and psychological well-being? About 20 years ago, Esogetic ColorpunctureTM originator, Peter Mandel, became interested in research emerging from a new field called Gastroneuroenterology. These researchers were talking about “the belly or abdominal brain.” Being a forward thinking naturopathic physician, Mandel decided this research required careful consideration by everyone in the healing professions. And, he set about developing specific Esogetic Colorpuncture acu-light treatments that support healing or regulation of the belly brain. Today, Esogetic Colorpuncture practitioners are using these treatments with excellent results.
What is the Belly Brain?
The belly brain begins with a nerve called the vagus nerve (also known as the 10th cranial nerve) which extends from your brain down into your body. This nerve is the longest one in the body’s autonomic nervous system. Generally speaking, the vagus nerve is involved in the parasympathetic regulation of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. In human beings, the vagus nerve actually has two branches. The dorsal branch, which is older in terms of it’s evolutionary development, is the one that travels down through the brain stem and wanders (as the name vagus implies) below your diaphragm into your stomach and intestines. There it forms a mesh-like system of neurons embedded in the gastrointestinal tract. This system is often called the enteric nervous system and that is what the researchers were beginning to describe as a brain.
The Belly Brain’s Job is Bigger than We Thought
For a long time, scientists thought the enteric nervous system was primarily responsible for managing your digestion. And indeed, whenever I work with a client who reports physical symptoms or problems in the guts, I always consider whether dysregulation of the this nerve complex is in the background of those symptoms. However, in the 1990’s, scientists began to discover that this nerve complex does a whole lot more than regulate our digestion.In 1998, Dr. Michael Gershon published his book, entitled “The Second Brain.” In it, he explained how and why the “enteric nervous system” actually functions like a separate brain in the body. In addition to managing our digestion, this nerve complex produces a large number of neurotransmitters, including about 90% of all the serotonin that our bodies need and 50% of the body’s dopamine supply. These neurotransmitters are vitally involved in a wide range of bodily functions, as well as many mental or brain activities. For example, serotonin has been called the “happiness” neurotransmitter and the lack of it is considered a major contributing factor to psychological depression.
It also turns out that about 70% of our immune cells are located in the gut. The enteric nervous system is actively involved in mediating the body’s immune function. More recently, people are talking about the microbiome, the extensive universe of bacteria that live in our gut, which interacts with our belly brain. The microbiome itself is thought to support immune health, brain function, and even certain signaling systems within the CNS. In fact, psychiatrists have begun considering the role that the microbiome may play in certain neuropsychiatric disorders.
Our belly brain communicates with the brain in our head via the dorsal vagus nerve and the spine. What Gershon and his fellow researchers discovered is that even when this communication is impaired or disrupted (for reasons we will talk about), the belly brain continues to function and do its job without the oversight of the brain in the head, unlike any other set of nerves in the body. In other words, it seems the belly brain has a mind of it’s own! Dr. Emeran Mayer, a UCLA professor of physiology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, points out that the communication between the brain in the head and the brain in the gut is a two-way street, in which about 90% of the fibers in the visceral vagal nerve actually carry information from the gut to the cranial brain, and not the other way around. He suggests that this gut–brain crosstalk “not only ensures the proper maintenance of gastrointestinal homeostasis and digestion, but is likely to have multiple effects on affect, motivation and higher cognitive functions, including intuitive decision making” (think neurotransmitters).
What Dysregulates the Belly Brain?
Another person who has greatly contributed to our understanding of how our belly brains get dysregulated in the first place is Dr. Stephen Porges, Director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois. Dr. Porges calls himself a physiopsychologist and his pioneering Polyvagal Theory has changed the way that many psychotherapists work with their traumatized clients. Porges was interested in how certain bodily systems function to influence a) our ability to accurately discriminate between situations that are safe and unsafe, and (b) our capacity to soothe ourselves and interact socially with others in order to lessen fear and form relationships. It turns out that the vagus nerve is very involved in this! According to Porges, the two branches of the vagus nerve (ventral vagal and dorsal vagal) play quite different roles in helping us recognize danger and interact socially (hence the name Polyvagal Theory).
Very briefly, the ventral vagal branch of this nerve, which developed in mammals, helps us to interact socially, soothe ourselves and form relationships. The older dorsal vagal branch, first developed in reptiles and early vertebrates, communicates directly with our limbic brain (the part of our brain that identifies danger and forms emotional responses). According to Porges, whenever we humans encounter danger or threat, we first turn to the ventral vagal system and try to resolve the problem with our communication and relating skills (“Hey, why would you want to attack me? I am a nice person.”) When this doesn’t work, the ventral vagal nerve goes offline and we shift to our sympathetic nervous system, which activates us to fight or run away from the threat!
Unfortunately trauma, by definition, occurs when we can neither fight nor run away. When neither of these options is available, our bodies resort to a deeper defensive response, one that involves the dorsal vagal nerve. That defensive response is called the “freeze”. When nothing else works, we freeze in the face of danger or threat, just as many primitive animals do. Dorsal vagal defensive responses are often accompanied by unpleasant symptoms in the intestine (diarrhea, constipation, etc.) Moreover, because trauma’s impact can be long-lasting, freeze responses due to dorsal vagal dominance can persist for years after the actual danger has passed. Thus, trauma researchers often observe that people with PTSD suffer from symptoms of constipation, diarrhea, and other painful bowel problems, as well as exhibiting psychological symptoms like anxiety, depression and dissociation. Moreover, according to Polyvagal Theory, people will also experience difficulty interacting socially and forming healthy relationships as long as they are primarily under the influence of this older, more primitive dorsal vagal system. For these reasons, I have found that Esogetic Colorpuncture belly brain treatments are a very useful adjunct therapy in the treatment of psychological trauma.
A Spiritual Perspective on the Belly Brain
Finally, Peter Mandel actually takes the understanding of the belly brain one step further in Esogetics. The Esogetic therapeutic approach is based on the understanding that body, soul, and spirit operate as one single continuum. Part of the work in Esogetic Colorpuncture is to facilitate improved communication between the subtle dimensions of soul and spirit, and the body. Based on the findings of gastroneuroenterology, Mandel revised his model of how information is transferred along this body-soul-spirit continuum. He now sees the belly brain is the first point of contact for the transfer of subtle spirit information into our bodies. To put it simply, spirit talks to us first through our bellies and we get a “gut sensing” of Truth. From there, our belly brains communicate with our cranial brains and we form emotions and thoughts, based on those gut messages. Dr. Gershon also used the terms ‘soul and spirit’ when he described the functions of the abdominal brain: “The abdominal brain guarantees the survival of spirit and soul in this dimension. It is the source of the psychoactive substances which are connected to our moods.” Gershon attributed this to the belly brain’s neurotransmitter production. In Esogetics, we also attribute it to an even deeper source of subtle regulating information… the information of the soul-spirit. From this perspective, regulating the belly brain helps with the formulation of intuitions, insights and understandings that, in turn, lead to positive life choices and actions. Very often, after receiving a belly brain colorpuncture treatment, I have found that clients report feeling more connected to themselves and more in touch with their own inner guidance.
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