A Little Food for Thought Goes the Wrong Way

Sputter, choke, gasp, blurp! That's the sound of a little bit of information going the wrong way.

It is my own fault. Long enamored of factoids, fascinated with learning, I have a tendency to bring into my seminars and presentations an unusual range of information. For example, fun facts like this: female Japanese stoneflies not only prefer males with more symmetrical wings but can determine those males solely by scent, no visual assessment necessary. While it seems odd, it does add an interesting grace note to a discussion of canine anatomical symmetry and gait analysis.

At the 2011 APDT conference, while discussing the autonomic nervous system (ANS), I focused on the familiar sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects of the ANS. I also added some brief information regarding the third aspect, which is the enteric nervous system. Sometimes referred to as the 'second brain' the enteric nervous system was first described back in 1902, but only more recently has become the focus of a new field, neurogastroenterology, with researchers such as Dr. Michael Gershon at Columbia Presbyterian of NY making amazing new discoveries.

I urged attendees to learn more about the complexities and function of the enteric nervous system, and then -- my mistake -- I offered up a fun factoid: 95% of the serotonin in the human body can be found in the gut.

How thoroughly I confused my audience was made clear when this came across my desk.

"Super interesting statement from Suzanne Clothier at the APDT conference... I have been sharing it with my clients...We all know serotonin is the happy chemical in our bodies and those of other species, dogs included. Guess where the largest concentration of serotonin is in the body... THE STOMACH!

Therefore, it makes sense to use food to help release more serotonin!"

All I could think when I read this was: Oh dear.

I'm grateful to the friend who sent this to me, who wondered if I had indeed said anything like what the writer was saying, or if somehow, twixt my lips and the receiving ears, something had gone AWOL. She knows I'm full of weird facts but it didn't quite ring true to her mind, and so she wanted to be clear about what I had or had not said.

While delighted that the speaker was listening and interested, I can see where I failed to be clear enough to prevent misunderstanding. The leap from "in the gut" to "in the stomach" was the first misunderstanding, and relatively minor. The "gut" is the overall term for the digestive system, something I mistakenly assumed was understood. I had noted that the enteric nervous system ran from esophagus to anus. But the "therefore, it makes sense to use food to release more serotonin!" was a big leap in the wrong direction. Such leaps are surprisingly not uncommon when understanding is incomplete.

Using food in training does not release more serotonin. It's just not that simple. In fact, you might not want additional serotonin dumped into the gut! Serotonin is implicated in IBS, irritable bowel syndrome, a result of too much serotonin. A little serotonin in the right place at the right time is a good thing; too much or too little is problematic for dogs & people alike. Food going into the stomach triggers a complex cascade of responses by the body, which does involve serotonin but not in a "look - now we're all happier!" kind of way. I urge all interested to do a bit of reading and broaden their understanding.

In addition to serotonin, the enteric nervous system also produces dopamine, norepinephrine and more, even psychoactive chemicals known as benzodiazepines. Most readers will recognize the common name brands of two benzodiazepines - Valium and Xanax.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Ask me how I know! Personal experience is always best, you know?

As a teacher, I keep providing interesting information to those I teach, hoping to spark genuine, deep curiosity and encouraging independent exploration of a topic. To my dismay, however, sometimes the little tidbits I offer are taken as a whole, misunderstood or misquoted, and even used to support conclusions or assumptions that I never made or intended.

For those who would like an accurate understanding of the enteric nervous system, neurotransmitters and more, here are some good websites & reads:

Hopefully, these 3 good articles plus a healthy dose of Dr. Sapolosky will set you chasing some very interesting ideas down some unexpected rabbit holes. It's always an exhilirating adventure, as you never know what you'll bring back in your basket of new ideas.

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