The Gut Brain Connection
By Jordy Johnson, Functional Medicine Nutritionist, Guest Writer
More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Hippocrates said, “all disease begins in the gut.” Turns out he was right. New evidence shows that everything relating to health stems back to or is rooted in digestive issues. The health of the gut is implicated in every single system of the body. Autoimmune conditions and mental health can be especially affected. Three biological factors that come into play include genetic predispositions, the makeup of the bacteria in the gut, and the permeability of the gut.
There is no doubt that diet and lifestyle play a big part here. How we break down and absorb our food differs from person to person. For example, what your body can do with certain food may be different than perhaps someone with celiac disease.
There are four phases of physiological digestion:
1. The Cephalic Phase
2. The Esophageal Phase
3. The Gastric Phase
4. The Intestinal Phase
We are going to focus on the Cephalic phase, the phase where digestion starts, in the brain. That’s right, the simple thought, sound, sight, and smell of food triggers the brain to transmit signals down your central nervous system through the Vagus nerve, the biggest nerve in your body running from the base of your head all the way down to your gut. The gut/brain is integral in each of the four phases, and its connection is quite complex. It begins in utero; both our brain and gut originate from the same clump of tissue that divides during fetal development. As they divide, they create one that turns into the central nervous system and the other that turns into the enteric nervous system, which controls gastrointestinal function. Later, they connect via the long cable being the Vagus nerve. The gut/brain axis is the term for this neural pathway between the central nervous system and the tissue that surrounds the gastrointestinal tract. There are constant messages being sent between the two. That is why physiological disturbances can sometimes be seen in mood, pain perception, and behavior.
Have you ever wondered why you get butterflies in your stomach before having to speak in public, or why your stomach gets upset before a big test? You can think of it as almost having two brains, one in your head and one in your gut. Within this pathway of the gut/brain axis, they are completely interconnected. If one gets upset, so does the other. In the rest and digest phase, the Vagus nerve slows down the heart rate so that digestion can occur. The Vagus nerve also stimulates peristalsis, contraction and relaxation of muscles that squeeze food down to be digested. It is responsible for releasing enzymes, aids in the production of hydrochloric acid and stimulates the release of bile to help break down fat.
If you struggle with digestion issues, try integrating some of these simple practices to optimize this gut/brain connection at mealtime:
Help with the preparation of your food to prolong the sensory experience.
If not preparing, see if you can figure out what ingredients are in your food within the first few bites by really thinking about the taste.
Eat slowly and chew thoroughly. Most people do not realize the importance of this. As you chew you gain more time to chemically alert the rest of your digestive system to start up.
Minimize distractions and have a designated place to eat.
Some people may even want to take a moment to bless their food or say grace. This does not need to be a spiritual practice, just something that helps us slow down, enjoy our meals, and appreciate how our food nourishes and makes us feel.
The Cephalic Phase is responsible for what you might call “smellvertising.” This is what happens when you smell something really enticing. You start to salivate, and you activate the digestive secretions that tell you it’s time to eat. So, the next time you are walking through the mall and smell Cinnabon or pizza, remember how interconnected our brains are to our tummies. Hopefully, this information helps you understand a little bit better how interconnected the gut and brain are and how it just may be possible for disease to begin in the gut.
Jordyn Johnson is a Certified Functional Medicine Nutritionist accredited by the Functional Nutrition Alliance. Her background is in health and wellness, and she is passionate about bringing awareness to using food as medicine.
Functional Nutrition AllianceTags: Gut Nutrition
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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