The Second Brain

It’s 10 pm and you are stressed.  All of the sudden your stomach starts churning and you remember that half eaten carton of Ben and Jerry’s left in your freezer.  Before you know it the ice cream is gone and you are left hoping that it will settle the butterflies in your stomach.  We have all had that feeling, but then the question arises.  What makes us have that “gut feeling”?  Why are our stomachs controlling our emotions, and therefore controlling our eating patterns?

Your gut can work independently without any input from your brain, unlike any other organ in the human body.  This is how the stomach got its name of “the second brain”.  The stomach is controlled by the enteric nervous system (ENS) which is made up of 100 million neurons.  The ENS is used to control the movement and absorption of food through the intestines.  The stomach has the ability to send signals to the brain that can affect certain feelings, such as sadness or stress, as well as influence memory, learning, and decision-making.  The stomach relies on 30 neurotransmitters in order to function that are identical to those in the brain.  The ENS communicates with the central nervous system (CNS) through the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, but does not rely on it in order to function.  Studies have shown that the ENS continues to function, even after the vagus nerve, which connects the CNS to the ENS, has been severed.

Different foods can affect emotions differently.  Specific components of food can influence neurohormones in the gut that are responsible for signaling the brain.  What a person eats affects their mood.  Fatty acids reduce feelings of sadness and hunger.  This is why most people in times of stress and sadness will turn to the help of “comfort foods” to help them feel better.  Ghrelin, a hormone manufactured by the gut, stimulates hunger in the brain and is one of the neurochemicals that sends messages back and forth between the ENS and CNS in order to affect mood. Every time a meal is consumed ghrelin levels fall, and then continue to rise again until the next meal. Obese people tend to have higher levels of ghrelin even after eating, which can leave them feeling hungry more often. High-fat foods stimulate dopamine production and can enhance mood/euphoria, thus encouraging the brain and stomach to seek out more high fat food.

Measuring the beerbelly

During gastric bypass surgery, the part of the stomach which produces the most ghrelin is isolated in order to make the patient less hungry.  The doctor then attaches the stomach to a section of the small intestine called the ileum which produces PPY, a hormone that makes you feel full.  PPY typically takes 20 minutes to send the message to the brain to let it know that the stomach is full.  Making these two sections of the stomach closer together allows the brain to receive the signal quicker in order to encourage the body to eat less.

Surgery is an expensive and drastic solution to fighting a problem such as obesity.  People try to diet, which if done safely and combined with exercise can be effective. One important thing to note is that people dieting will also have increased levels of grehlin, increasing hunger levels.   This is one reason why people find dieting to be so difficult. Food affects mood due and increased cravings caused by certain hormones can be difficult to control.  Perhaps this is why your co-worker who is on a 3-day juice cleanse is in such a sour mood.

If exercise and dietary changes fail to make a dent in hunger, weight and BMI then a more targeted approach can help people interested in managing appetite and controlling food intake. Medical foods is certainly one option that should be explored. As a safe and effective class of medications medical foods deliver the specific neurotransmitter precursors required by nervous system to help reduce appetite and promote early satiety As stated earlier, your stomach uses neurotransmitters just as the brain does.  Using these neurotransmitters help your stomach become more satisfied and helps manage your mood and cravings, helping you manage appetite safely and effectively.  Clinical trials show that a medical food as an adjunct to a weight loss diet and exercise plan can help increase weight loss and decrease BMI.

Ten Foods that May Help Curb Appetite:

  1. Avocados – Composed of monounsaturated fats, which take longer to digest, avocados help suppress ghrelin production and appetite.  The soluble fiber in avocados slow digestion by forming a thick gel as it travels throughout the gut.
  2. Greek Yogurt – A high-protein appetite buster.  Since it is thick, you feel fuller faster.
  3. Legumes – High in soluble fiber, resistant starch, and oligosaccharides.  These complex carbs help slow digestion.
  4. Cottage Cheese –  A good source of protein which helps suppress appetite.
  5. Oatmeal – Contains beta-glucans, a soluble fiber, that helps it travel slowly through the digestive track.
  6. Nuts – Nuts contain healthy fats and fiber which help you digest more slowly.
  7. Fruit – high in fiber, which helps to slow digestion and keep you feeling full longer.
  8. Wasabi – suppresses appetite and also contains anti-inflammatory qualities.
  9. Salmon – Salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which helps the body increase leptin, a hormone used for suppressing hunger.
  10. Cinnamon – Cinnamon helps lower blood sugar which helps control appetite.

Alternative Therapies for Pain Associated with Peripheral Neuropathy

Diabetic neuropathy can occur when people with diabetes develop nerve damage. Most commonly, the peripheral nerves of the feet are affected first, causing numbness, cramps, loss of balance, extreme sensitivity and pain starting in the toes and over time progressing up the legs. Diabetic neuropathy can affect nerves in hands and arms, as well as parts of the autonomic nervous system that are responsible for regulating heart rate, blood pressure and sleep cycles. Not everyone who has diabetes will develop neuropathy. (1)

Peripheral neuropathy, also known as distal symmetric neuropathy or sensorimotor neuropathy, is the most common type of diabetic neuropathy. Diabetic neuropathy affects 60-70% of diabetics. Certain risk factors increase the chances of developing diabetic neuropathy. These include age, the duration of the disease, and glucose levels in the blood. There are different factors that may lead to diabetic neuropathy. Additionally, certain neurovascular factors, autoimmune factors, mechanical injury to nerves, inherited traits that increase susceptibility to nerve disease, and lifestyle factors can increase the chances of developing diabetic neuropathy.

Preventing diabetic neuropathies is a challenge but is not impossible. Diabetic patients should keep glucose levels as close to the normal range as possible. Maintaining a normal blood glucose level can help protect nerve cells from unnecessary damage and even lesson symptoms associated with diabetic neuropathy.

There are many treatment options currently available to patients for pain relief associated with diabetic neuropathy. Two commonly used medications for pain relief associated with nerve pain are opioids and a class of medications known as anti-epileptics. Opioids were originally developed to help patients manage pain associated with cancer, but have since been incorporated in a number of pain management treatment protocols for non-cancer pain. This class of medications can be a useful for pain relief, but can also lead to addiction and other harmful side effects. Anti-epileptics like gabapentin are also commonly used to manage diabetic nerve pain. This class of medications was originally developed to treat epilepsy, but has since been approved by the FDA to treat nerve pain. Common side effects of gabapentin and other anti-epileptic medications include dizziness, dry mouth, blurred vision, headaches, diarrhea, fluid retention, and weight gain.(2)

Patients and providers have increasingly been looking to certain medical foods as a safe and effective alternative option to some of the more dangerous pharmaceuticals used for the management of pain and numbness associated with peripheral neuropathy. One example is Percura, a medical food that is specially formulated to provide the nervous system with the amino acids and nutrients required to effectively manage the unique nutritional needs of nerve cells. A recent open label study showed that patients with moderate to severe peripheral neuropathy showed improvement in pain after one month taking Percura. Side effects associated with Percura are mild and temporary and include, bloating and diarrhea. Percura and other medical foods may represent a valuable treatment option for patients with diabetic peripheral neuropathy, without the side effects associated with opioids or anti-epileptic medications.


[1] Dyck, Peter J., Feldman, Eva L., Vinik, Aaron I..  “Diabetic Neuropathies: The Nerve Damage of Diabetes”. National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse.  NIH Publication, February 2009. Web. November 26 2013. http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/neuropathies/#what

[2]“What are the Real Risks of Antidepressants?”.  Harvard Health Publications.  Harvard Medical School, May 2005.  Web. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/What_are_the_real_risks_of_antidepressants.htm