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Enteric Nervous System (ENS)

Enteric Nervous System (ENS)

Part of the autonomic nervous system, the enteric nervous system is the intrinsic nervous system of the gut, which regulates the digestive functions of the gastrointestinal tract. It’s also responsible for that intuitive ‘gut feeling’, earning its nickname ‘the second brain’. So, if you’ve ever felt nauseated upon receiving bad news or lost your appetite because of nerves, you’ve experienced the enteric nervous system in action.


Where is the enteric nervous system?

The largest and most complex unit of the peripheral nervous system, the enteric nervous system is around 9 metres long in adults. It stretches from the lower third of the oesophagus through to the anal canal (1).

What is the function of the ENS?

The enteric nervous system oversees many aspects of the digestive process. It connects the brain and digestive system, passing messages back and forth between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system. This clever system also controls the response to the food and drink ingested, regulating hunger and satiety.  


Why is the ENS called ‘the second brain’?

If you’ve ever trusted your ‘gut feeling’ or experienced ‘butterflies in your stomach’, you received signals from your enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is often called your ‘second brain’ because it’s uniquely equipped to carry out gastrointestinal functions without the input of the central nervous system. 

The gut-brain axis

The gut-brain axis is the complex neural network that connects the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system, linking the emotional and cognitive centres of the brain with the peripheral intestinal functions (2). 
The gut and the brain have a bidirectional relationship: the gut signals to the brain; and the brain signals to the gut.

What happens if the enteric nervous system is damaged?

If the enteric nervous system is damaged, it will likely result in gastrointestinal issues, which can impact the brain – and vice versa. The rates of digestive upsets in individuals with anxiety and low mood are considered examples of the complex relationship between the brain and the gut (3).

Enteric nervous system support

Recent advances in research suggest the gut microbiota – the community of trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi living in the digestive tract – can affect the enteric nervous system (4). And so, any changes to the gut microbiota may determine how the enteric nervous system responds to digestion. Therefore, eating and living in a way that supports your gut will, in turn, support your enteric nervous system.
The pillars of good gut health are the pillars of good overall health: reducing stress, drinking plenty of water, exercising regularly, and fasting for 14-16 hours are some of the best ways to support your gut.

What foods help the gut-brain axis?

Eating a balanced, diverse, and mainly whole-food diet will help maintain a healthy gut microbiome and support the enteric nervous system.

Fermented foods

Fermented foods are believed to increase the microbial diversity of your gut bacteria, which is a marker of good gut health (5). Natural yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, pickles, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kimchi, and cheeses that have been aged, not pasteurised are excellent examples of fermented food to support your gut health.

Prebiotic foods

Abundant in many fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and grains, prebiotics are a special type of fibre that feed your gut bacteria (6). They pass through your gut without being digested to nourish your microbes. You can find prebiotics in bananas, blueberries, nectarines, rye bread, cashews, chicory, garlic, onions, and green peas. 

Plant foods

Eating 30 different plant foods every week is one of the best ways to support your gut health. These foods are rich in polyphenols and fibre, which feed your gut microbes. Studies suggest individuals following a diverse Mediterranean diet have a more varied gut microbiome – and this is a good indicator of a healthy gut (7). Plant foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes (examples include beans, lentils, and peas), and beans.

What nutrients support gut health?

In addition to dietary changes, you may wish to include more of the following nutrients to support your enteric nervous system.

Fructo-Oligosaccharides (FOS)

Increasing your intake of natural soluble fibre from the carbohydrate Fructo-Oligosaccharides (FOS), derived from the inulin family, is often recommended to support normal intestinal health.

Live cultures

Live cultures are made up of good bacteria that help your body work optimally. They remain a popular choice for gut health.

Peppermint oil

Peppermint has a long tradition as a digestive supplement. It continues to be a great choice for digestion.

Want to learn more?

If you want to find out more about supporting your nervous system, please explore the rest of our dedicated health blog. You can also read more about gut health here.  Alternatively, please get in touch with our team of expert Nutrition Advisors, who are on hand to provide free, confidential advice via email, phone, and Live Chat.



  1. Enteric nervous system (2023) Enteric Nervous System - an overview. ScienceDirect Topics. Available online:

  2. Carabotti M, Scirocco A, Maselli MA, Severi C. (2015) The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Ann Gastroenterol. 28(2):203-209.

  3. Hu, Z., Li, M., Yao, L. et al. (2021) The level and prevalence of depression and anxiety among patients with different subtypes of irritable bowel syndrome: a network meta-analysis. BMC Gastroenterol 21, 23.

  4. Carabotti, The gut-brain axis, 203-209.

  5. Marco ML, Sanders ME, Gänzle M, Arrieta MC, Cotter PD, De Vuyst L, Hill C, Holzapfel W, Lebeer S, Merenstein D, Reid G, Wolfe BE, Hutkins R. The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on fermented foods. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 18(3):196-208.

  6. Berding K, Long-Smith CM, Carbia C, Bastiaanssen TFS, van de Wouw M, Wiley N, Strain CR, Fouhy F, Stanton C, Cryan JF, Dinan TG. (2021) A specific dietary fibre supplementation improves cognitive performance-an exploratory randomised, placebo-controlled, crossover study. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 238(1):149-163.

  7. Ghosh, T.S. et al. (2020) Mediterranean diet intervention alters the gut microbiome in older people reducing frailty and improving health status: The nu-age 1-year dietary intervention across five European countries, Gut, 69(7), 218–1228.

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Our Author - Olivia Salter


Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.

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