The California Cure Dr. Emeran Mayer: Second Brain

Call gastroenterologist Emeran Mayer a kind of mind reader. As director of UCLA’s Center for Neurovisceral Sciences and Women’s Health, Mayer heads a leading integrated-research program that investigates how digestive disorders arise from the connection between body and mind. Countless frustrated patients turn to Mayer after having seen many other specialists without satisfactory explanation of their symptoms—or effective treatment.

“Although I have so much research reasonability, I’m reluctant to give up my clinical practice,” he says,” because patients open up to me and tell me the most interesting stories.” Those stories also often offer amazing clues as to what might be the genesis of their diseases—for instance, he notes his patients often have unstable early childhoods. Coincidence?

The enteric nervous system, located in the gastrointestinal tract, has as many neurons as the spinal cord and is sometimes called the body’s second brain. As much as 80 percent of our well-being might come from the complicated interplay between the brain in our head and the one in our gut, Mayer theorizes.

A native of Munich, Mayer says this topic has interested him since he was a college student in Germany and, in fact, led him to pursue medical school in the first place. His fascination has been fed by another interest, documentary filmmaking, which has taken him on expeditions to visit indigenous peoples in Brazil and New Guinea. He’s been struck by how this idea of the gut’s importance in health transcends culture and time.

“Interestingly, this concept is also shared by many ancient healing traditions, from the traditional Chinese-medicine classifications to ayurvedic to Hippocratic medicine.” While he emphasizes that “you have to be really skeptical” of putting too much faith in folklore and unproven theories, he also acknowledges that ideas that have persisted for “thousands of years” might well have something to them. Mayer, though, wants to move beyond theory to directly improving his patients’ health, which, so far, looks promising.

Says Mayer: “The most satisfying experience is to be able to help frustrated patients and give them a comprehensive explanation of the mind-brain-body interactions based on our clinical and preclinical research findings, teach them simple relaxation techniques or refer them to mindfulness training and make simple life-style recommendations.” Many show improvement after just one visit, he notes. “This is a very exciting time in medicine.” —Samantha Dunn