It turns out that there are some valid physiological and psychological reasons for tuning in to the signals and messages coming from your gut.
Behind our “gut feelings” about a person or situation, or our nervous “butterflies” before a big event, is a whole network of neurons connecting our digestive tract to our brains. This network of neurons is so massive that more than a few scientists have begun referring to it as our “second brain”. Our digestive tract, which consists of a long tube about 27 feet long, is lined with 100 million neurons – far more than the spinal cord. These neurons can talk to our brain via a system of constant signaling, and it is speculated that many of our emotions are strongly influenced by the nerves in our gut. In fact approximately 90% of serotonin, a neurotransmitter which contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness, is located in the cells of the digestive tract. Its primary job there is to help regulate intestinal movements. Whereas in the central nervous system serotonin regulates mood, appetite and sleep. It also helps with memory and learning. Additionally, new research is now demonstrating how this “second brain” helps to develop our immune response. Seventy percent of our immune system is developed and aimed at the gut in order to identify, kill and expel foreign invaders.
A strong and healthy immune system is your number one protection against all disease.
An unhealthy gut can mean an unhealthy immune system. Unfortunately, at least 20% of North Americans are estimated to be suffering from digestive disorders – in particular, IBS or irritable bowel syndrome. IBS symptoms can include: bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gas, mucous in the stool or cramping. Additionally, newer research is suggesting that almost 100 percent of individuals with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, ADD or schizophrenia may be suffering from undiagnosed food allergies or digestive disturbances. Other diseases can also be connected to IBS, including: candida, colon cancer, diabetes, gallbladder disease, malabsorption disorders, pancreatic insufficiency, ulcers and parasitic infections. Systemic disorders have been linked to IBS as well. For example, 25 percent of adults with IBS will have peripheral arthritis (ankles, knees and wrists). IBS is also related to skin disorders. All this implies that keeping our guts scrupulously healthy and well-functioning is vital to our overall mental and physical health.
So how do we keep our digestive tracts healthy? Listed below are a few suggestions to keep your 2nd brain happy and content:
Eat lots of naturally fermented foods (sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, kimchee, kombucha) or take a probiotic supplement daily. Probiotic foods or supplements will support your gut’s natural immune system. The friendly bacteria found in these foods or supplements help the body to produce antibodies against pathogens.
Probiotics have also been found to:
- Reduce inflammation in the body
- Aid in the digestion and absorption of certain carbohydrates (for e.g. lactose)
- Produce vitamins such as vitamin K and B vitamins
- Promote mineral absorption
- Crowd out the bad bacteria
- Keep allergies under control
Avoid regular use of alcohol or tobacco as these items can irritate the lining of your stomach and colon. Also, please don’t eat processed foods – these foods are devoid of nutrients and often contain preservatives and chemicals which irritate the digestive tract.
Try to eat organic fruits and vegetables as much as possible.
Try to find out if you have food allergies. Visit your naturopathic doctor, holistic nutritionist, homeopath or allergist to determine possible allergenic culprits in your diet. Common allergens are: shrimp, lobster, crab, strawberries, chocolate, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, gluten, dairy and eggs. Food allergies can inflame the digestive tract and stress the immune system.
Chew your food well. Chewing stimulates important enzymes which help you to break down and digest your food.
Include extra fibre in your diet. But be aware that some types of fibre are too ‘rough’ and do not agree with everyone (for example, bran). Examples of fibres which are more easily digested are: chia seeds, ground flax seeds, oat bran or psyllium.
Get regular exercise and drink lots of water – moving your body and staying well hydrated will keep things moving along nicely in your digestive tract. Our bodies were designed to move, not to sit.
Examine the sources of stress in your life and work to reduce this stress and your reactions to it. Research and testing has found that people who practice stress management (such as breathing exercises, meditation) have significant improvements in their digestive functioning.
Add herbs into your diet. Herbs that can be helpful to the digestive tract include: Ginger, Goldenseal, Chamomile, Artichoke, Calendula, Catnip, Milk Thistle, Fennel, Fenugreek, Gentian and Peppermint.
Be cautious about certain medications – a number of pharmaceutical drugs can damage or aggravate your gut. These include: antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and steroids.
If you listen to your gut carefully it can tell you a lot about your overall health. And, if you find that implementing the strategies suggested above don’t improve the health and happiness of your digestive tract then it would be wise to consult with a medical doctor to rule out some other underlying health problem.