Use Your Gut Instincts: Understanding the GI Tract as a Brain
If you think yoga and meditation eases the “mind and body,” you don’t know how right you are!
Did you know that the gut (the “body” in this case) contains 200 million neurons, with 95% of it producing the emotion-inducing serotonin? The serotonin in our brain affects mood, sleep, and memory; whereas the serotonin in the stomach regulates intestinal transit and immune system response. Our brain and gut also have anatomical similarities and seem to be birectional in how one affects the other. However, if the microbial flora of the gut reaches an imbalance of good and bad bacteria, that can directly affect the brain--causing distress, headaches, anxiety.
It is best to have a rich diversity of bacteria in our gut to prevent GI disturbances such as bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. This explains why antibiotics taken for a longer time than prescribed could kill off several of the beneficial bacteria and cause the bad bacteria to multiply and wreak havoc on our gut and mood.
Take, for example, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which is experienced as only a body issue. In actuality, IBS is caused by a haywiring in the bi-directional neurotransmission of the Central Nervous System and the gut “brain” (the Enteric Nervous System, or ENS), which controls the gut neurons in a self-regulating fashion. ENS and CNS interpret pain differently, leaving IBS sufferers to experience a lower pain threshold which causes “visceral hypersensitivity”--making the gut more sensitive to stool urgency, bloating and heightened pain.
One of the best solutions to treat IBS, or maintain a healthy gut and brain, is to add more beneficial bacteria into your gut flora by eating probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and plain yogurt; Flavored yogurt contain too much sugar can disrupt the homeostasis of microbial bacteria. “Psychosocial factors [like stress, anger, and rumination] influence the actual physiology of the gut.” Implementing yoga, mindfulness, and meditation routines are also ways to calm the CNS, which in turn will calm the ENS.
The mind-body connection is a real phenomenon, and should be concurrently practiced with western medicine. The holistic ideaology teaches us to perceive each body part as an interdependent part of the whole--each system of the body affects one another. And this reigns true regarding the two brains: the CNS and the gut. “You are what you eat” now becomes synonymous with “you are what you feel.” Listen to what your gut is telling you, and know that you have the extra brain power to control how your stress affects your body and mind.
1. Coss-Adame, Enrique, and Satish SC Rao. “Brain and Gut Interactions in Irritable Bowel Syndrome: New Paradigms and New Understandings.” Current gastroenterology reports, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4083372/.
2. Publishing, Harvard Health. “The gut-Brain connection.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection.