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Your brain and gut are intertwined.

Your brain and gut are intertwined.

Can you recall the last time you felt butterflies in your stomach? Or suffered with diarrhoea while feeling stressed and anxious?  You may have felt unease in your gut when a situation in your life doesn’t seem right.

These feelings happen because the function of the nervous system and the digestive system are closely related.

Your body contains a nervous system that is so complex it’s like a second brain. The home to around 500 million neurons, it stretches from the oesophagus to the anus. Embedded in the wall of the gut is the enteric nervous system (ENS).

It plays an important role in physical and mental well being. It can work both independently of and in conjunction with your brain via the vagus nerve. The ENS helps you sense environmental threats and then influences your response.

The function of the ENS is to control the mechanical mixing of food, co-ordinate the muscle contractions of the digestive system and maintain the biochemical environment, meaning the secretion of digestive juices and levels of gut PH.

Another important function of the ENS is to prevent dangerous bacteria and viruses invading our bodies. If a pathogen crosses the gut lining, immune cells in the gut wall secrete inflammatory substances such as histamine which are then detected by the neurons in the ENS. A message is then sent to the brain to initiate a response such as diarrhoea or vomiting.

There is a two way communication between the gut and the brain, when we change our behaviour in some way the brain will send messages to our gut that can initiate changes in digestive function and even influence our gut bacteria.

On the other hand, changes in gut bacteria as seen with tummies suffering dysbiosis or “leaky gut” can lead to changes in our behaviour. In such cases the incidence of fatigue, depression, confusion, brain fog and poor memory are increased. Over two thirds of people with autism experience gut issues and over 70% of people who have irritable bowel syndrome report mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Did you know that our happy hormones are produced not only in the brain but also in our gut?

Within the layers of the ENS secretion of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters are controlled. These include serotonin and dopamine. Around 90% of our serotonin is produced in the digestive system and while we know within the brain serotonin has the power to regulate our mood and make us feel happy, it also has effects on digestive function.

These include regulation of smooth muscle contraction, peristalsis and mucosal secretion.

What happens to digestion when we are stressed, rushing or anxious?

There is a direct link between the stress response and the gut and this effects how we are able to digest our food. When you are feeling worried, fearful or stressed the sympathetic nervous system slows down gastric secretions and motility.

The blood is being diverted away from the gut to the muscles in our extremities as part of the fight or flight response. In extreme stress the body will shut down digestion completely. Continued stress will impair how we digest and absorb our food which will lead to less energy, nutrient depletion and inefficient elimination of wastes.

How can we support a healthy relationship between the gut and nervous system?

The vagus nerve responds to relaxation. When you feel relaxed the parasympathetic nervous system will signal peristalsis and gut secretions, this will result in efficient digestion of foods. It is important to be relaxed while you eat your meals.

Take time to look and smell your food and eat mindfully. Which means being present and focused on your culinary experience. Activities that can help to create a relaxed state include walking, meditation, deep breathing techniques or spending time in nature.

It is also important to consider the health and functioning of the digestive system. Is your gut microbiome balanced and full of healthy beneficial bacteria? Are you secreting enough gastric juices to break down and metabolize your food?

Do you eliminate wastes efficiently? If the process of digestion is less than optimal this could cause uncomfortable symptoms such as indigestion, gas, bloating, diarrhoea or constipation.

Sound familiar? What can you do?

Your Naturopath can guide you through the process of how to establish a healthy relationship between the nervous system and digestive system while optimizing the function of both*.

Emma Tippett is a naturopath at Empowered Health who has a special interest in treating digestive disorders and related conditions. Emma believes that finding and maintaining optimal health is the key focus when helping you return to optimal health. To book an appointment with Emma, book a free 10 min phone briefing or call 1300 21 44 25 to book an appointment.

*Disclaimer: Please know that the results are a typical and may vary from person to person

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