The Gut-Brain Axis and Your Mind-Body Connection

Happy 2019! I have a gut feeling that one of your goals for the new year is to be healthy. If I’m right, read on to learn out the important role your gut plays in your overall health...

Scientists and the medical community have recently become fascinated by the relationship between the gut and the brain. You’ve probably heard of the “gut-brain axis,” but what is it exactly, how does it work, and how does it affect your health?

Facts about your gut

The gut-brain axis is the intense information exchange and connection between the brain and the gut. Here are some fun facts about your gut:

  • Did you know your gut has its own nervous system? It’s often referred to as the “second brain” because it has between 200-600 million nerve cells, as many as are contained in your spinal cord!

  • Your gut microbiome is made up of the trillions of microorganisms that live in your intestinal tract. The surface area of these microorganisms when spread out are the size of a basketball court!

  • Additionally, immune cells reside in your gut and make up the largest component of your body’s immune system.

How the gut-brain communication works

The gut-brain communication works in two ways. First, the gut and brain are connected through thick nerve cables that transfer information via neurotransmitters in both directions. For example, serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with mood - and your gut stores 95% of your body’s serotonin! Secondly, the gut-brain axis is connected through hormones and inflammatory signaling molecules that travel in the bloodstream, also in both directions. These messages between the gut and the brain not only coordinate our basic digestive function, but also regulate mood, stress, sleep patterns, mental functioning and other essential body processes.

Listen to your gut

Because of the intimate connection between the brain and the gut, the gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotions. Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach when you were nervous? Many people know that stress can result in physical effects on the digestive tract and the whole body. It can cause chronic nausea or bloating, and can be a trigger for symptoms in people who have irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel syndrome, and other gastrointestinal conditions. But since the signal goes both ways, a troubled gut can actually be the cause of stress - an imbalanced, damaged or poorly functioning digestive system has been implicated in depression and other mood disorders.

We’ve also all heard a lot about the importance of maintaining healthy gut bacteria. The microbiome living on the inner lining of your intestines is another important part of the equation because of their ability to communicate with the brain. These trillions of bacteria have a direct impact on brain function and play a key role in digestion and absorption of nutrients, regulation of metabolism, detox of ingested chemicals, regulation of the immune system, preventing infections, and regulation of mood. There are both “good” and “bad” bacteria. Dysbiosis refers to the state of adverse imbalance of the microbiome and can be caused by use of antibiotics, stress, poor diet and lifestyle, or the overconsumption of irritating foods, which may then result in an imbalanced, damaged or poorly functioning digestive system.

The Chinese medicine perspective

Though the brain-gut axis has recently emerged in medical science, traditional Chinese medicine clearly recognized the connection between emotions and digestive health thousands of years earlier. According to Chinese medicine, the Earth element, associated with the Stomach and Spleen, represents the digestive system. It is the foundation of our ability to properly digest and assimilate food, converting the nutrients into blood, qi and fluids of the body. It also sees the digestive system as responsible for processing your emotions. It is most affected by chronic worry, anxiety, or overthinking. Excessive or unbalanced emotions and stress weaken the Spleen and Stomach, and therefore the gut.

How to optimize your gut-brain axis

Chinese medicine has always embraced a holistic healing approach. Acupuncture and herbal medicine can support digestion, absorption and elimination, while the dietary decisions you make can shape, populate, and cultivate beneficial bacteria. Probiotics and prebiotics support gut health and can be taken as a supplement or found naturally in the foods we eat. A healthy diet rich in fermented foods, omega fatty acids, leafy green vegetables and limited complex carbohydrates will also help to develop a healthy gut microbiome. And let’s not forget that self-care is also essential to supporting the digestive system. Receiving regular acupuncture treatments and taking time for exercise and stress-reducing practices such as yoga will help to regulate both the nervous and digestive systems.

Understanding the bidirectional interplay of the gut-brain network is key to making decisions to promote total-body, emotional and physical health. I wish you a calm mind and a healthy gut for 2019!


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