Gut Health Part 2: The Gut Brain Connection

Uncategorized Dec 12, 2017

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 distress 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 drama? Frankly, I didn't have time or space for this kind of nonsense, so I started not eating before performances to avoid the pain and inconvenience.

Little did I know that it wasn't only what I was eating (though the gluten and dairy that my body was rejecting didn't help), but in addition to the intolerances I suffered, unbeknownst to me, 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.

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" series (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 affect not only our immune system and hormones, but also our nervous system, impacting 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) is a pretty dern 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 I'm interested in helping women with 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).

While studies are inconclusive as to the effects of probiotics, it is known that they aren't harmful. Many find great relief by adding in a daily probiotic. 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:

Fermented foods are another way to up that beneficial bacterial balance.


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