A big factor in determining our overall health involves an organ system that many of us ignore and disrespect. This system does so much for us but does not get the respect it deserves; that system is our gut. However, once our gut is in a state of distress, we are not likely to ignore it any longer. There are many things that can disrupt the function of our gut, which has also been dubbed our second brain. There is a strong relationship between the food that we eat as well as our levels of stress in regards to how our gut functions, and our overall health.
Have you heard that term your second brain before? Contrary to what most know to be our one and only brain located in our head, our gut actually holds what is called the “second brain”. Dr. Alejandro Junger explains that “your first brain serves as your intellectual hardware and your second brain-the gut-is your spiritual and emotional GPS” (1). Each of us has a digestive brain, or ENS (enteric nervous system), that contains millions of neurons which, have the power to influence not only our digestion capabilities but our psychological state as well (2). So as Dr. Junger states, your second brain, or your gut, is where you’re spiritual and emotional center is. Perhaps this is why we say to trust out gut, our deep seated intuition? That “it”, not our head, never fails us? Another interesting fact is that 90% of our serotonin levels are produced there, with the remaining 10% being produced in the brain in your head (3). Therefore, if your digestive system is out of whack, your feel good hormones will also be disturbed.
Stress, tension, never ending work, no vacations, and the standard American diet (SAD) exhaust the body and the mind and cause the systems of the body to become compromised—beginning with our digestive system. Do you show symptoms of stomach upset when you are under high levels of stress? How about when you make a less than healthy meal choice? Both of these things can result in the exact same symptoms. These can include but are not limited to:
- Stomach upset
- Constipation or diarrhea, gas, bloating
- Cramping (IBS)
- Acid reflux
- Mood swings
- Excess mucous
- Sinus pressure
- Skin eruptions
- Joint pain
- Inflammation of any kind
If you have many of these symptoms your digestive system is likely struggling. Gut issues have also been linked to seemingly unrelated conditions like: obesity, arthritis, cancer, vaginitis, and even mental conditions including depression, attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder (ADHD), and bipolar disorder (4). Hippocrates stated that all disease begins in the gut. I think he was on to something.
Even if you do not have some of the many symptoms mentioned above you may find yourself in another situation, that of developed food allergies or sensitivities. I have had to learn, and troubleshoot health issues in the past this way. I did not have any of the classic digestive symptoms, but in the past have been under extremely high levels of stress. Even though my diet was cleaner than most, organic, vegetarian, no GMO’s, etc…I had endured the loss of a parent, a severe car accident resulting in years of chronic relenting pain, two emergency surgeries within two weeks of eachother, and the common life challenges that a mom of two young boys and being a full time student brings. My health issues started in the gut, but did not show it until I was way beyond a simple fix. You see, once the digestive system is under constant assault with stress, and then add to that bad food choices, etc., the gastrointestinal (gut) microbiota is negatively affected, and this is the cause of the various possible health issues listed above.
It is important to sit and observe your gut, as it is trying to speak to you. Once symptoms arise such as painful bloating, cramps, and diarrhea, your gut is beyond talking and is now yelling. Observe your gut signals when there is no pain, both on an empty stomach and after meals. Is there rumbling, dull aches, throbbing, emptiness, or minor bloating? Listening to your gut can help to identify foods that are irritating, as well as our guts overall state of health during any given moment of the day.
It is equally important to observe your stresses. Everyone is stressed, and there are many ways to cope. Many are surprised when they learn that the amount of stress they are under directly correlates to the health of their gut. Stress is a normal part of life, but it is important to recognize and observe it, as well as to do things to find relief. When you are under undue stress, pay attention to how your feel. Is your stomach tight and in knots? Do you have more indigestion? Constipation? General stomach aches?
Try to sit in silence and see what your gut is telling you when you are in a stressful situation. Maybe you have never paid attention before. You may find the sensations are very strong. This is the gut-brain connection at work.
Have you ever heard the phrase over 70% of your immune system lies in your gut? (5) This is our gut microbiota, or gut bugs. For the most part we live in harmony with the bacteria, viruses, and fungal organisms that typically inhabit the gut (called the gastrointestinal microbiota), and these have played a vital role in maintaining human health. Gershon stated that “the rigors of the modern lifestyle, overuse of antibiotics, and the SAD diet have done much to restructure the once symbiotic relationship, resulting in significantly disrupted gut environment” (6).
Some indicators of a happy and healthy gastrointestinal tract include 2-4 bowels movements per day, feeling good and energized not only after eating but all day long, sleeping well, and having no extreme mood swings or food cravings. These indicators are pretty rare; do you have all of them? What can we do to help to restore the gut microbiota of our gastrointestinal tract as well as our health? A good first step is to avoid processed foods; eat less from a box, bag, or can. The main culprits of food sensitivity include but are not limited to: wheat, gluten, yeast, dairy, corn, soy, eggs, nuts, and coffee. Taking a high quality probiotic is critical to keep the balance of your microbiota healthy. Digestive enzymes are naturally produced in the body but are on the decline as we age. It is important to eat plenty of raw uncooked fruits and vegetables to get enzymes naturally; cooking kills the enzymes in our food. If you are having digestion issues, taking an enzyme may prove to be very helpful. Drink plenty of water and eat plenty of fiber. Equally crucial to overall health is reducing stress. Do something every day that makes you calm, happy, and brings you back to what is really important in life.
Some simple ideas on how you can improve digestion when eating a meal:
- Eat in a relaxed state (happy is best with smiles and laughter)
- Take time in between bites
- Make sure to chew your food thoroughly
- Do not drink a lot of liquid just before or during your meal
- Bless your food before eating if this resonates with you
Another great recommendation is to keep a food journal. Recognizing what you have eaten before you became bloated, gassy, and irritable will be very helpful to finding out what is not working for you.
I hope that this short explanation of how our digestive system “works” has led to a better understanding of why it is vitally important to provide your body with the good food and good attitude it needs; and what can happen if you don’t. Remember, your digestive system is very complex, and is there to protect you; but it needs your constant care so be sure to pay attention to it.
(1) Junger, A., M.D (2013). Clean Gut-The Breakthrough Plan for Eliminating the Root Cause of Disease and Revolutionizing Your Health. New York: HarperCollins Publishing Inc.
(2) Matveikova, I., M.D (2014). Digestive Intelligence. Scotland, UK: Findhorn Press
(3) (6) Gershon, M. (1999) The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestines. New York, New York. HarperCollins Publishers
(4) Wallace, TC., Guarner, F., Madsen, K., Cabana, MD., Gibson, G., Hentges, E., Sanders, ME., (2011) Human gut microbiota and its relationship to health and disease. Nutr rev. Jul;69 (7); 392-403
(5) Allergy and the Gastrointestinal System. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/
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