The Gut Brain Connection
You are what you eat. Butterflies in your stomach. IBS related to nerves.
When I was a young thang singing in cabarets and doing showcases in New York City, I started noticing that before I went on stage, I would have HORRIBLE cramping in my stomach and feel the need to rush to the bathroom due to... tightening bowels right before my number was called. I had plenty of experience on stage and could think of no reason why this would suddenly be happening to me. The IBS would clear up as soon as I was done performing, and I was left wondering what I'd eaten that had given me such bowel distress? I didn't have time or space for this! I started not eating before performances to avoid the pain and inconvenience.
(This was before I had any education in health, wellness, or hormone health, and I was a mere deer of a human flopping around like a fish very much out of water. Suffocating. Dear baby Jesus, I was suffocating.)
Little did I know that it wasn't only what I was eating (though the Cheerios, Diet Coke, and pizza diet wasn't really cutting it, either), but in addition to the less than desirable diet, my gut was deeply affected by the piles upon piles of chronic stress in my life. The twain had led to some serious gut dysbiosis that was manifesting in all sorts of delightful ways, such as these pre-show (more than) flutters, seasonal allergies and sinus infections, and anxiety and depression, just to name a few.
My gut health was so out of whack that my body didn't know how to make heads nor tails of it, and she was deep in survival mode.
Turns out, there is a link and channel of communication between your gut and your brain which can dictate everything from your mood to how your brain decides what hormones and enzymes should be released to keep your body operating as needed (and also cause IBS symptoms due to stress and anxiety and vice versa).
Once I began studying Integrative Nutrition, yoga, and overall health, I began to question: who's the real motherboard here? The brain? Or the gut?
Today we're digging into part two of the "Gut Health for the Holidays Series" I've decided will carry us through the rest of 2017 and into the New Year (check out Part One: When Ya Can (or can't) Feel It In Your Gut where I covered the basics of the gut and gut health).
Your digestive system and your nervous system are deeply intertwined with communication happening in both directions, from the brain to the gut (yes), but also from the gut to the brain.
This gut/brain connection is controlled by the Enteric Nervous System, i.e. the second brain, and it is made up of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the gastrointestinal system, from esophagus to anus. Containing upwards of 100 million neurons (more than the spinal cord or peripheral nervous system), the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is responsible for more than simply digesting our food. In fact, the ENS can operate independently of the brain and the spinal cord.
This means that our gastrointestinal system has its very own nervous system that is capable of autonomous functions like coordination of reflexes (i.e. moving food through the GI tract); while the ENS receives some innervation, or supply of energy, from the brain, it can and often does operate independently. 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around.
In fact, this vagus nerve, which begins in the brain and runs throughout the digestive system, is even connected to the heart. Via the vagus, the ENS can communicate directly with the Central Nervous System—for example, if the gut tract is irritated or distended, a signal is sent to the medulla of the brain for processing—as the medulla regulates breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, inflammation can disrupt the essential functions of the medulla.
We are talking about this because when the gut gets imbalanced, it can effect not only our immune system and hormones, but also our nervous system, effecting stress, depression, anxiety, and energy levels.
We are only as healthy as our gut and the ability of our gut to properly digest the foods that we put into it. For this reason, the relationship between you and your gut (including the microbiome you house within) may be the most important relationship in your life. Factors like stress, illness, aging, antibiotics and other medications, alcohol, and poor diet all contribute to gut dysbiosis.
This is why Integrative Nutrition work entails so much more than simply the food we eat; we must also assess the many ways we move through the day and the other areas of life where we may be over-stuffing or under-nourishing ourselves.
It's a multi-leveled issue that a four part series can't solve, however, the goal here is to simply take small steps and make incremental adjustments as we progress through this holiday season. It's very easy to say: reduce stress! But if you do not already have a mindfulness practice in place (yoga, meditation, walks, etc), it can be a difficult time of year to squeeze in something new.
I get it.
With that, I'll leave you with part two's focus for encouraging a healthy gut. Something that is actionable RIGHT NOW (with simply a click on your computer, a few dollars, and a willingness to add an additional 30 second routine into your day): adding in a daily probiotic (maybe toy with pairing it with a morning kickstart).
In part one, I encouraged you to practice chewing 20-30 times with each bite as digestion begins in the mouth. Another important and overarching necessity to gut health is a proper balance of the flora within your gut. The shifts in the bacterial population within your GI tract can make the body more susceptible to infections and stress, and, conversely, added stress can increase the population of detrimental flora. One way to combat this is to take a daily probiotic to add more good bacteria to your gut microbiome.
There are so many probiotics out there, it can make a gal's head spin!
Here are a few recommendations to alleviate the overwhelm:
- Dr. Ohirra's Probiotics
- Integrative Therapeutics Probiotic Pro-Flora Concentrate
- Metagenics Ultra Flora Plus DF 15 Billion Organisms
- VSL#3 (the most well studied probiotic that's available over the counter)
Fermented foods are another way to up that beneficial bacterial balance, and look out for my upcoming interview with Cultured Guru, one of my favorite local to Baton Rouge fermented food curators.
Until then, chew chew chew and get you a probiotic!