Gut-brain: a very talkative couple
Your gut is about 200 to 600 million neurons – as much as the brain of a dog or cat – distributed along the digestive tract. It is also 100,000 billion bacteria, making it the densest ecosystem on the planet. Finally, your gut groups together ⅔ of your body’s immune cells. As for your brain, 86 billion neurons constitute your gray matter and consume 20% of your energy.
Your gut, this “bottom brain”, is a sensitive organ with great power. The very act of digesting is very complex and difficult to reproduce in the laboratory. Some researchers are even wondering today if the original brain would not be the gut. For Michel Neunlist, a world expert on the enteric nervous system (neurons that line the digestive tract), the gut would be the first brain because primitive organisms were initially composed only of a digestive tract. The gut would have been the central brain for millions of years until the domestication of fire where the upper brain would then have developed and taken up more space to feed us better and seek food. In fact, cooking facilitates digestion and requires less energy to chew. The first brain then expended less energy, which did more to develop the brain.
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Your two brains are therefore intimately connected. But technically, how do they communicate?
Your two nervous systems are nervously connected through the largest nerve in your body: the vagus nerve. And they chat without a-r-r-be. This vagus nerve leaves behind your ears, then descends into the body, innervates the lungs, heart, liver, stomach, spleen and ends up with the intestines. Through it, the brain controls the functioning of these organs which, in turn, use it to send messages to the brain informing it of their mechanical or chemical state. The 500 million gut neurons are connected to the brain by the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is, therefore, the key communication channel between the gut and the brain. Only 20% of the nerves that connect the brain and the stomach transmit information from the brain to the stomach. And 80% of these nerves transmit information from our gut to our brain.
The gut and the brain also communicate with blood. The gut microbiota, the set of bacteria in our intestines, communicates with our brains, passing food through the blood and into the brain.
With all this communication, we then understand why food is crucial in this gut-brain dynamic. What your gut will live and receive, your brain will be affected. We will now illustrate, through various researches and experiments carried out in the world, this ever more studied phenomenon of communication.