Nervous gut - so, just what is your gut telling you?
By Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND
I routinely discuss bowel health with my patients.
It's one of the markers that I use to evaluate overall health status. Whether it's acid reflux, burping, gas, abdominal bloating, diarrhea or constipation, pain in the gastrointestinal tract (or gut) is one signal that's difficult for us to ignore.
Improving digestive function is critical to ensuring proper absorption of nutrients and disposal of waste products. Is fibre, sufficient fluid intake, exercise, and whole foods all it takes for good bowel function? Knowing how to unwind may be just as important.
The gut reaction
Imagine yourself in the following situation. You are crossing the street and a car suddenly stops in front of you. After your initial fright, you feel queasy and notice that you're grasping your abdomen because of digestive discomfort. What is the cause?
Our gut's nervous system contains 100 million sensory neurons, as many as found in the spinal cord! It therefore responds to nervous stimuli with wave-like muscle contractions, blood flow changes and secretions such as acid, enzymes, hormones and bile. Our state of mind, whether relaxed or stressed, directly effects the co-ordination of these processes. Let's now examine how we can take our knowledge about this gut-brain axis to improve our digestive system.
The worse type of stress is the kind that causes us to feel like we have no control. Work deadlines, plunging stocks, yet another car repair, a sick child. As mentioned in his book "When the Body's Says No", Dr. Gabor Mate, MD, explains how the lining of the gut is one of the more important tissues affected by emotional stress. Although the cascade of reactions that cause stress-induced digestive disorders remains poorly understood, exciting new research is bringing to light this gut-brain axis. It appears that stress is a contributing factor to gut irritation and allergic reactions, both which can lead to gut inflammation (pain, swelling, redness and heat). As part of a comprehensive medical evaluation, assessing the nervous system is an important component in gastrointestinal conditions such as gastritis, celiac disease, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
Rhyme or reason for food intolerances
Becoming aware of our food intolerances or food sensitivities can be difficult and often confusing. Have you ever noticed how on vacation certain foods that normally cause digestive discomfort are now easily tolerated? How can we make sense of this? Once again, our state of mind can directly change the way we digest our food and should therefore be evaluated in food intolerances & allergies.
Sleeping hormone produced in the gut
Melatonin, a hormone critical to the regulation of our sleep-wake cycle (also called circadian rhythm) is also produced by the gut. A 2002 article published in Digestive Diseases & Sciences describes how our gut secretes 400 times more melatonin than is found in our brain. Once secreted in the gut, melatonin acts as a powerful antioxidant where it can have local effects such as protecting the gut lining and distant effects on the nervous system.
This surprising finding has broadened my thinking about melatonin and has influenced the way I treat certain digestive conditions. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for example, affects 3-5 per cent of the population in western countries and causes an array of symptoms including very unpredictable bowel habits. In one randomised, double blind, placebo-controlled study, patients with IBS had decreased gastrointestinal pain when melatonin was administered over a two-week period.
Even the thought of food
As much as 30 per cent of stomach secretions are produced even before we swallow our food. The smell of food, the sight of appealing foods, and the anticipation of an upcoming meal all contribute to this effect. One way to achieve this is by making home-cooked meals versus grabbing a quick bite on the run. Turning on our gut-brain axis before we put food in our mouth will improve gut function and may also lessen the need for many supplements such as antacids or digestive enzymes.
Our parents often nagged us as children about the importance of chewing our food. Apparently they were right and wrong.
Even if food is swallowed whole, an adult stomach has the ability to churn and grind food into particles small enough to pass into our small intestine. So why bother chewing? Chewing, like smelling food, kick-starts digestion.
In summary, our body is equipped with many mechanisms to enhance our ability to digest. By understanding our gut-brain axis we can adopt strategies that facilitate this process. Slowing down is one of the most effective ways of doing this. Chewing your food is another way. The use of specific vitamins or minerals in medicinal doses (B vitamins, for example) and individualized herbal or homeopathic combinations provides good adjunctive treatments for stress.
Addressing the root cause of the stress and learning adaptation techniques that suit each individual is also paramount. For some it's yoga or skiing, while others find socializing the best way to decompress. Choose whatever way works best for you!
Published by Dr. Gleixner on Wednesday March 4th, 2009 in Times & Transcript.
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