On a stressful or depressing day, the gut goes straight for comfort food: potatoes and gravy, meatloaf, or, for the veggies, a grilled cheese sandwich piled high with cheddar, provolone, or mozzarella. The more the cheese oozes, the better the day gets.
In an emerging field dubbed neurogastroenterology, scientists are finding that the stomach knows more than we give it credit for. “The gut can work independently of any control by the brain in your head—it’s functioning as a second brain,” Michael Gershon, professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University, tells Dan Hurley in Psychology Today (November/December 2011). The brain in the gut, called the enteric nervous system (ENS), is made up of 100 million neurons and can work on its own, without any direction from your upper half. And like the mind, it can control mood. The ENS manufactures serotonin identical to that in the head, Hurley reports, and “tinkering with the second brain in our gut has lately been shown to be a potent tool for achieving relief from major depression.” Autism has also been found to be wrapped up in the neurobiology of the stomach, with many parents finding that a gluten- and dairy-free diet calms obsessive behavior and reduces social withdrawal.
So what comfort food works best to bolster moods: Mashed potatoes? Macaroni and cheese? Mainlined ice cream sundaes? Any of these can work, according to researchers in Belgium, as long as they contain plenty of fat. After participants in the Belgian study were fed either a saline solution or an infusion of fatty acids and then listened to neutral or melancholy music, they were interviewed and given MRI scans. Researchers found that the fatty acids activated the brain regions that regulate emotions and reduced feelings of sadness by about half. “It’s an important demonstration that in a nonconscious way, without knowing whether you are getting the fat or the salt water, something you put in your stomach can change your mood,” Giovanni Cizza of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases tells Hurley. So go on and take solace in comfort food. As it turns out, cravings aren’t all in the head.