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Unveiling The Gut-Mind Connection: A Holistic Approach To Health

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Welcome to the exploration of the extraordinary world within you—your gut, a powerhouse vital for your overall well-being. 

Desiree Nielsen’s enlightening insights from “Good For Your Gut” and the groundbreaking research from Johns Hopkins Medicine have peeled back the layers, revealing the profound connection between your gut and mind. 

From the intricate phases of digestion to the nerve-cell-rich enteric nervous system (ENS), this journey will unravel the secrets that govern your health.

Understanding The Gut's Role In Digestion And Renewal

When you hear the word gut, does your digestive tract come to mind? Your digestive tract is about 30 feet or 9 metres long and runs from your mouth to your anus. Within it are zones for digestion, absorption and pooping. Your mouth takes care of physical digestion, primarily through chewing. Meanwhile, your stomach performs chemical and muscular digestion using stomach acid and mixing processes. Finally, the small intestine acts as the hub for absorption.

Lining the zones of your digestive tract is a single layer of cells called the epithelium. The outer layer of your skin has an epithelium too. It goes through constant renewal cycles that can last weeks. The renewal cycle of your gut’s epithelium happens every three to five days. Every three to five days, you have a completely new gut lining. 

A fresh start. That is a very comforting thought.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of our anatomy, we’ll just mention that tight junctions hold our gut cells together. It’s the unzipping of these tight junctions that is common in celiac disease that causes inflammation and damage to our gut lining.

The Three Phases Of Digestion

The three phases of digestion are called the cephalic phase, the gastric phase, and the intestinal phase.

Desiree Nielson tells you to “think about biting into a juice, sour lemon.” She wants to know if your mouth just watered. Desiree is the author of a plant-based digestive health cookbook called “Good For Your Gut” and says that it is your brain talking to your gut to get it ready for a tart treat. 

Phase One: The Cephalic Phase

This phase begins before you put a bite of food into your mouth. Seeing, smelling, and thinking is enough to turn on the digestive process. But as soon as you do bite into some food, glands in your mouth release saliva containing amylase, an enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates like sugars and starches. 

As simple as it sounds, chewing increases the surface area of food particles, which helps acids and enzymes attach to food to break them down. This is why if you don’t chew your food well, it won’t digest well.

“There’s a reason why people have some sort of breathing difficulty.” James Nestor, who feels pretty strongly about chewing, says, “It’s because our mouths have not grown to the size they were supposed to have grown.” 

He is a leading modern-day advocate for chewing your food and implores you to chomp more!

After you swallow, muscles in your gut push the food down your esophagus toward the stomach. Before it reaches the stomach, it passes through a door called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Your stomach contains acid. If the LES doesn’t work properly, acid can splash back up into the esophagus, causing pain known as reflux or heartburn.

Phase Two: The Gastric Or Stomach Phase

Once the food is in your stomach, receptors in your gut lining are activated, triggering two things.

  1. The release of stomach acid and enzymes.

  2. Contractions in the muscle layers that line the stomach.

Your stomach is now a mixing bag of acid-laced mush called chyme. The chyme remains in your stomach for about thirty minutes before slipping through the trap door to the small intestine. It is here where the gut-mind connection becomes clear. 

Phase Three: The Intestinal Phase of Digestion

The small intestine controls the rate at which the stomach empties the chyme for optimized digestion and absorption. Digestive enzymes break everything down to their most basic form so absorption can occur. Your small intestine is an action-packed ride that lasts hours. What’s left is fibre, fat, protein, and a bit of water that gets passed onto your ascending colon. 

The small intestine communicates with your stomach to control the emptying rate through its enteric nervous system (ENS). 

Your Gut-Brain Connection

The ENS is your second brain; its primary role is controlling digestion. From your esophagus to your rectum, your ENS has over 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract.

“Your enteric nervous system does a lot of communication with your brain about what’s happening inside your gut.” Says Desiree Nielsen, “It’s thought that 90 percent of that communication comes from the gut to the brain, not the other way around.”

It’s wild to think about, but your gut has more neurons (nerve cells) than your spinal cord. And what’s even more fantastic is that your enteric nervous system can operate semi-independently of the brain by sensing what’s happening in one part of the gut and telling another part – without the brain getting involved.

Messages travel from neuron to neuron by way of neurotransmitters. They can boost, suppress, or alter signals from one neuron to the next. One of the most well-known neurotransmitters is called serotonin.

Did you know that your gut’s nervous system produces  95% of the serotonin in your body?

What Connects Your Brain And Your Gut?

Vagus means wanderer, and that’s precisely what your vagus nerve does. From tensing your jaw to regulating your heart rate and digestion, your vagus nerve travels from your brain through the spinal cord to the rest of your body.

It is the primary nerve that services your gut. Many of the de-stressing activities we discuss in our blog, including yoga, meditation, and breath work, activate your vagus nerve. 

“Through your vagus nerve,” explains Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, “your ENS can trigger big emotional shifts.” These are experienced by people coping with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional bowel problems.  “For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around,” Pasricha says.

Researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS), which triggers mood changes.

Impact of Gut Health on Overall Well-being

“Fixing your gut isn’t about just going grain-free or taking an antacid,” urges Desiree Nielsen, “it’s about taking a step back and realizing just how much influences your mood at this very moment.”

How well your body heals and fights off infection is impacted by what happens in your gut. Your digestive tract houses approximately 70% of your body’s immune function.

As stress we take on more stress, our beneficial daily practices begin to falter. Our diet becomes less healthy, lacks fibre and is high in fat and sugar, and our mood begins nosediving. Physical routines and mindfulness rituals get skipped, and our immune system weakens. 

The design of our bodies enables us to bounce back from these phases that generally last for 2-3 weeks, which is not that big of a deal. The beauty is in the bounce-back. As soon as we start counterbalancing the bad habits, our gut barrier knits itself back together. Our energy will return, and our sleep patterns improve. Which helps restore our motivation for healthy habits and process the stress to allow our immune system to calm down.

It’s all connected.

  1. Try square breathing if you feel overwhelmed in your personal or professional life.
  2. Inhale for a count of four.
  3. Hold the inhale for a count of four.
  4. Exhale for a count of four.
  5. Hold the exhale for a count of four.

Holistic Strategies for Gut Health and Stress Management

Here is a list of exercises you can do to stay healthy, provided by Desiree Nielsen, RD.

  1. Breathwork:
    Purposeful breathing exercises. Deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system to calm your nervous system.

  2. Journaling
    Anything from free-form writing to something more structured like a gratitude journal. It’s great to do before bed if your mind starts to run – get it onto the page and out of your head.

  3. Mediation
    Meditation is one of the best tools for calming the nervous system and building your capacity to tolerate what life throws at you.

  4. Outside Time
    Fresh air daily creates mental space for healing.

  5. Reading
    Reading for fun. You don’t always have to be learning. Don’t be ashamed to read a children’s book.

  6. Taking a bath
    It is soothing and relaxing, perfect for unwinding after a long day.

  7. Movement
    Fifteen sweaty minutes every day.

  8. Social Time
    Social connection is critical to better health outcomes.

  9. Therapy
    Exploring your first brain might help you chill out your second brain.

  10. Singing
    Singing, gargling and chanting can all activate your vagus nerve and calm you down. 

The Gut-Mind Connection: A Blueprint for A Balanced Life

Understanding the gut’s role in our well-being unveils a profound truth: our gut isn’t just about digestion; it’s a cornerstone of our overall health. 

We gain insights and actionable steps to nurture our well-being by recognizing this connection. Implementing stress-management techniques, embracing mindfulness, and acknowledging the gut’s influence on our health pave the way for a balanced, vibrant life.

About the author
Sean Grabowski

Sean Grabowski

A passionate ambassador, educator and student of mindfulness and meditation. Advocate for unique experiences and life long learning.

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