01.07.2012 Naturopathy

Two Way Talk

Our gut is often called our Second Brain, indicating the powerful connection between thoughts and gut function. Story by Lyn Craven

How does your mind affect your body you might ask? How can it possibly affect my digestive system?

Did you know that you have two 'brains'? Your first brain is the mental aspect of your being and your second brain (known as the Secondary Brain) is the gut aspect of your being.

When the human embryo is forming in the womb, the gut lining and brain form from the same tissue part of the human foetus, so they share many of the same nerve endings and chemical transmitters. Your brain and gut continually communicate with each other during your entire lifetime. This network of nerves, neurotransmitters and hormonal substances is interactive throughout this entire communication.

We have different nervous systems in our body. The enteric nervous system or ENS, the largest part of the peripheral nervous system or PNS, controls your digestion. Many practitioners call this the second brain. Research has shown that the enteric nervous system can function independently of the central nervous system (CNS) and has many properties similar to that of the CNS.

The Happiness Molecule
All of the neurotransmitters found in our brain can also be found in the ENS or the gut. The gut produces serotonin known as the molecule of happiness! Serotonin is manufactured in the human brain using the essential amino acid tryptophan, which is found in foods such as bananas, pineapples, plums, turkey and milk. As a neurotransmitter, serotonin activates numerous functions in the body including the control of appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, mood, behaviour, cardiovascular function, muscle contraction, endocrine regulation and depression. Research has shown that no physiological substance presently known possesses such diverse actions in the body as serotonin.

Some of the antidepressant drugs that increase levels of serotonin can produce nausea and diarrhea as side affects. You will find that many pharmaceutical medications often disturb the equilibrium of the gastrointestinal tract. This is also because some of the neurotransmitters found in the brain are also found in the large colon or bowel. As this two-way communication between our central and enteric nervous systems is continual throughout our life, we can see why any disturbance to this interconnected system can contribute to a number of digestive or bowel disorders. To put it simply, your brain and nervous system has an impact on your digestion and bowel function and your gut can also affect your brain.

These biochemical messages moving back and forth between our enteric and and central nervous systems occur through neurotransmitter activity involving various hormones and what we call peptides. Peptides are proteins made up of amino acids. Many can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream without digestion or breakdown into individual amino acids. Many peptides do work as neurotransmitters and can assist with pain relief. All these chemical reactions are important to us to achieve and maintain a stable mental and emotional state. Thus our emotions can have a huge affect on our physiological functioning.

Emotional stimuli that affect our nervous system can have an impact on our gut and bowel function. What you see or perceive triggers a feeling or emotion that, in turn, instigates a reaction, such as being paralysed with shock, feeling nauseous or needing to vomit, crying, anger, frustration, anxiety or fear. These all generate some type of stress - physically, emotionally, mentally, energetically and spiritually.

Have you ever had a physical sensation that something wasn't quite right? Or perhaps experienced an odd feeling that a situation was somehow dangerous? Or have you had 'butterflies' in your stomach just before an important meeting or event? That was your second brain in action!

Another surprise! Your gut brain is also able to learn, remember and produce emotion-based feelings. Since your vagus nerve connects the two brains, when one brain gets upset the other brain joins in.

So, you can now see that due to this direct brain-gut connection, the state of your gut has a profound influence on your psychological well being.

There are approximately one hundred million neurotransmitters lining the entire length of the gut - it can't be a coincidence that that's the same number found in the brain! Research has shown that the total number of nerve cells in your gut is far greater than all the nerves connecting to the rest of your body and brain. That's mindboggling!

Effect of Stress
When we are stressed, all physical conditions can worsen. Stress can trigger disorders such as chronic constipation, irritable bowel disorder, ulcers, chronic indigestion, reflux, bloating, allergies and what is commonly called Leaky Gut Syndrome. This is a disorder in which changes occur in the intestinal permeability, where nutrients that should be contained within the digestive system leak out into the bloodstream and travel around the body, causing havoc and instigating a variety of health disorders over time. Undigested peptides that enter the bloodstream have the ability to bind to receptor sites and affect endogenous opioid levels. So, when these opioid levels are affected, they have a direct impact on our emotions and our mood! This metabolic process interferes with our ability to assimilate all the nutrients from our food and utilise them efficiently since particles leak into the bloodstream and cause disease.

This situation can be easily resolved with dietary changes, supplements (if needed to support diet), herbal medicine and specific live bacteria which have been formulated for healing the gut lining and strengthening gut integrity.

There are many strains of live bacteria and it is very important to select the correct type for this disorder. Your individual case would require assessment and the recommendation of a qualified practitioner. Many symptoms that present with Leaky Gut Syndrome are: bloating, flatulence, reflux, constipation, diarrhea, changeable bowel patterns, colicky pain, thrush, candida, fungal overgrowth, coeliac, fatigue, depression, headaches, migraines and a number of allergies.

If your ability to assimilate nutrients is compromised, then, over time, you may discover problems with reproductive health and endocrine deficiencies just to name a few issues. Often people resort to laxatives when suffering constipation, and frequently this is the wrong treatment! In fact, laxatives can create far worse situations and open the way for you to manifest diverticulitis, ulcerative colitis, distorted bulging colon or polyps, along with dependency.

Constipation results through a number of different causes and needs to be assessed to select the correct treatment. In all cases it is recommended that you try probiotics, plenty of filtered or spring water (1½ litres a day - plain hot water can help (two mugs a day), liver detoxification with herbs, increase healthy fibre in your diet, get regular physical exercise, (we must move our bodies for the colon to work efficiently), along with deep relaxation such as meditation and/or yoga and plenty of good quality sleep (7-8 hours).

What can contribute to constipation? As we age a few things change in how our body functions. We experience a slowing down of the colonic motility and we appear to manufacture less serotonin levels in our gut. Remember, serotonin is also manufactured in your brain. You may have less exercise, poor diet, insufficient sleep, higher stress levels and insufficient water. All these things can contribute to constipation. You also need to take time to relax! Being stressed, uptight and tense in your mind and emotions will create a tense tight colon!

Most people have heard of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, commonly referred to as IBS. I find this term used loosely to cover a number of bowel disorders that reflect some type of irregularity, and sometimes it is even used when the problem is simple constipation.

Medically, you would receive antispasmodics and be told to increase your fibre intake. A natural regime would recommend you also include Slippery Elm powder, which is excellent for healing the gut mucosa, along with antispasmodic herbs that have no side affects and help relieve any cramping and colicky pain. They also assist in healing the mucosa and function of the bowel. The herbs also help to combat any parasitic infestation that can be present in any colon problem, along with helping to normalise the gut/bowel flora. There are no pharmaceutical drugs that will help in all these areas of healing.

Eat in Peace
Since stress has played a role here it is important to take remedies that help strengthen the nervous system and alleviate the stressful reactions that take place between your mind and your gut. You can drink chamomile, lemongrass or peppermint teas in the evening and bedtime which can help relax and act as what herbalists refer to as a carminative. Stronger herbal solutions are only available from qualified practitioners.

So, this enables you to see how your mind and your emotions can have a huge part to play on your digestion and your Colonic Motility. Remember, relax when you eat! I encourage everyone to take time out to eat in a relaxed environment and focus purely on the food you are eating, not on your work, or TV, or reading or your computer. Your mind is assimilating this information and thereby interfering with the equilibrium and function of the mind-gut connection. While you assimilate this knowledge, you are also assimilating the nutrients from your food so this function is always affected by where your mind directs its focus. This generates stress to the stomach lining, where we have many nerve endings, interfering with the whole digestive process!

Be aware that what you perceive and every thought you process triggers an emotion! So, if you are watching a program that contains unpleasant graphic information your mind will be assimilating this, or if you are upset or angry when you are about to eat, these emotions will impact on your digestion! This is why it is best to be in a relaxed environment where you don't have any mental distractions.

Since we are all unique, we all handle stress in different ways. Some people will find their stomach region will become tight. Others will feel the tightness in their belly or colon region. Either way, this can contribute to a myriad of different symptoms including headaches, irritability, frustration, depression and anxiety. So enjoy your meal, relax, chew your food slowly and thoroughly, and avoid drinking any fluids at least 30 minutes before or after eating. This allows the digestive enzymes to work more efficiently for you.

Relaxation Techniques
Some relaxation techniques I recommend:

  • Meditation
  • Sit by the ocean, in the park/woods/garden
  • Practise yoga
  • Take a leisurely walk
  • Enjoy some relaxing bodywork such as Bowen Therapy, Reiki, Energy Healing, Aromatherapy, Massage.

Additional advantages of Bowen Therapy are that it assists in releasing blocked qi energy as in acupuncture (but without the needles)! Receive professional advice on dietary needs - everyone requires varying nutrients and types of foods and learn to relax! When you self prescribe you may not "get it right" and be disillusioned with the lack of results. You may also spend a lot of money on products, tests and treatments that you may not require for your health problem.

This article is only an indicator of some health problems that can manifest from a poorly functioning digestive system - many auto-immune disorders can also manifest. People often leave things for too long putting up with minor symptoms and not seeking correct advice. Naturopaths, Medical Herbalists and Homoeopaths spend many years training in these specialised fields of natural therapies and research has indicated how natural remedies are far more affective and far less invasive in helping to resolve many chronic disorders than many conventional drugs.

Sydney-based Lyn Craven is a practitioner of naturopathy, nutrition, medical herbalism, Bowen therapy, Reiki energy healing and meditation, and is a corporate health presenter/consultant with 17 years' experience in natural therapies.

Lyn Craven

Lyn Craven is a practitioner of Naturopathy, Bowen Therapy, Energy/Reiki therapist, meditation teacher and Corporate Health Consultant. She is also a health researcher/writer and has produced a meditation CD assisting people to manage anxiety and stress. She runs a private practice in Sydney and can be contacted on +61403 231 804