We are all familiar with the concept that our brains connect to our digestive system. We have all experienced butterflies in the stomach when we are nervous, or stomach cramps when we are stressed, or the sudden onset of nausea or even vomiting when we get some unexpected bad news. This is nothing new at all, it is expected and accepted.
But have you ever really thought about the expression ‘having a gut feeling’ about something. I’m sure you’ve experienced this, you’ve probably even kicked yourself at some point for listening to your head or worse, to someone else, rather than that gut feeling when making a choice about something. We’ve all done it!
So does our gut actually have feelings? What if I was to tell you that the gut actually has its own nervous system? The enteric nervous system (ENS) consists of two thin layers of nerve cells. In fact the ENS contains more nerve cells than the spinal cord – more than 100 million! The purpose of the ENS is to control digestion, and it is thought that it came into being to make digestion more efficient, so that the digestive system didn’t have to wait for communication to and from the central nervous system but instead had it’s own ‘on-site’ controller!
The vagus nerve (or pair of nerves actually) is perhaps the most important in the ENS and is highly active in the parasympathetic nervous system – which activates our rest and digest response. In the USA vagus nerve stimulation is actually used to treat depression and epilepsy.
The human body is not designed to be under constant stress, instead it is designed to have periods where the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge to allow for ‘rest and digest’. When we are stressed inflammation is activated to combat the stress. That is our immune response. Unfortunately because our bodies don’t know the difference between a sabre tooth tiger bite and a growly boss – chronic stress, which is really the modern way of life – becomes chronic inflammation, and research is increasingly showing this to be related to many serious diseases.
A huge part of the immune response actually takes place in the digestive system. The human body contains more bacterial cells than it does human cells and there is a lot of interaction between the two. One of the things that the bacteria in the digestive system do is to excrete antibodies, which are necessary to fight infection. This is the bit to really pay attention to folks! What this means is that the bacteria in your gut – which makes up what is known as your gut microbiome – plays a big part in the regulation of the immune (ie. inflammatory) response.
Fighting disease with the gut
There is now extensive research being done to explore exactly how we can use the microbiome to actually fight illness and disease. Studies so far have found interactions between an imbalanced gut microbiome and illnesses including depression, anxiety, autism, multiple sclerosis, obsessive compulsive disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome and even just plain old stress! More research is needed to determine the exact nature of these relationships, as well as how targeting the gut in treatment can help to overcome ‘brain’ diseases, and the opposite approach – how providing medication such as anti-depressants can help to reduce the ‘gut’ symptoms in conditions such as IBS.
There is advice out there from many people who have had amazing results from changing what they eat in order to control their gut microbiome. Including Dr Terry Wahls who overcame her crippling MS and Kirsty Wirth who achieved an incredible turnaround for her autistic son.
Food as Medicine
Food is the energy that we give to bodies and it really can be the most simple and yet most powerful medicine on your journey to heal yourself! I would strongly recommend that you see a functional or integrative doctor, a naturopath, or a nutritionist to have some testing done on your own specific gut microbiome, and work out what you can do to heal mental and emotional conditions through your digestive system.