What do you think about when you think of the gut? Food getting broken down? Digestion? Funny noises when you're hungry? You definitely aren’t alone. We’ve been brought up thinking of our belly and guts as their own system. We eat food, it goes into our bellies, gets digested and moves through our system and out the back end. Did you ever think that our guts could be connected to our brain?
Over the last couple of decades research has shown these two seemingly independent systems are strongly connected. Believe it or not, what you eat can affect your mind, and stress and anxiety in your mind can affect your gut.
Where does it come from?
We now know that there are more bacteria that live in your body than cells. These trillions of bacteria, called the microbiome live mostly in your gut and are as unique to each person as the neural pathways are in each of our brains. The more variety of bacteria in the gut, the “healthier” the gut is considered to be. In addition to that, 100 million neurons also live in your gut. Yes, those are the same neurons you find in your brain!
The gut has been called the “second brain” due both to the fact that neurons are found there as well as the fact that it communicates so closely with the actual brain. The gut-brain, also known in the scientific world as the enteric nervous system (ENS) arises from the same tissues as the central nervous system (CNS) that makes up your brain and spinal cord. Therefore it has many structural and chemical similarities to the the brain.
Functionally the ENS cannot do the same jobs as the brain. For example, it doesn’t help make decisions, process emotions, store memories, or help our body remain balanced and functioning but the two communicate back and forth through electrical signals, hormones and neurotransmitters. The ENS is responsible for digestion as well as regulating immunity and inflammation.
We already know that our brains are connected to our guts. Just the thought of food causes our bodies and stomach to start priming for digestion. Our mouths start to salivate, increasing digestive enzymes leading to stomach juices being released. Have you ever noticed that when you are stressed at work or anxious about an upcoming event, your digestion feels off or you feel butterflies in your stomach? Those sensations are the brain signaling to the gut that something is going on emotionally. Seeing how closely the brain and gut interact, it has become clear that emotional and psychosocial factors can trigger gut symptoms.
Functional gastrointestinal disorders or FGIDs for short, are a group of more than 20 chronic gastrointestinal conditions where the gut acts up but there is no clear physical cause for the discomfort, like a tumor, lesion or some sort of bowel obstruction. Two better known examples of FGIDs include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO). Both of these conditions are notoriously hard to treat often requiring multiple modalities beyond just the gut itself. In fact, clinicians have starting psychological treatments such as cognitive behavior therapy, relaxation techniques, biofeedback and mindfulness meditation to treat FGIDs. In one study in particular, participants with IBS when through a 9 week mindfulness meditation practice and had a significant reduction of IBS symptoms. (REF)
This connections goes in the other direction too. What’s going on in our gut can have a negative effect on the brain. A poor diet can lead to an imbalance of bacteria in your belly, called dysbiosis. This imbalance may be linked to increased inflammation in the body, potentially leading to more serious neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Autism spectrum disorders, and Parkinson's disease. Recent research has even suggested that depression may now be seen as an inflammatory disease mediated by gut health.
One way we can help keep both our minds and guts happy is by mindful eating. When we are feeling increasingly busy, it’s all too easy to grab food on the go and eat without actually thinking about what we’re putting in our mouths, and our bodies. Eating mindlessly can increase stress hormones, and decrease our digestive capabilities. Our bodies don’t have the time to properly prepare for digestion, which leads to stress on our system. This can lead to weight gain, decreased pleasure in eating and maintaining deregulation of gut function.
We’ve become familiar with the benefits of mindfulness; the practice of being in the moment and noticing our thoughts with compassion and non-judgement. Mindful eating is the same practice focused on your food. Mindful eating involves not only how we consume food but what foods we choose to eat. It provides the space and time the body needs to properly digest without firing off stress hormones and inflammatory responses.
Before sitting down to eat or grabbing your next snack ask yourself these questions:
1. Why am I eating?
2. What am I eating?
3. What else I am doing?
Other aspects of mindful eating involve acknowledging gratitude for your food and engaging your attention to what you are eating. Tune in to the textures, tastes and a flavours of the food you’re eating. While doing this, allow yourself the time to chew your food, then chew it again. Chewing allows for the digestive enzymes in your mouth to start their work to break down the food you're eating a allow nutrients to be absorbed.
Having a clearer understanding of the connection between the gut and the brain should empower us to know that we can control our overall wellness through our lifestyle choices. By beginning a mindful eating practice and become more conscious of the food we put into our body, we can help improve our mood and stave of potential neurological conditions. And by practicing mindfulness and other healthy ways to managing our stress and anxiety, we can help keep our microbiome happy and healthy. It’s a win-win for everyone.
This post was written by our MOMENT teacher, Hadley Pearce. Catch her in class on Monday & Thursday mornings or by checking out our schedule here (link).