We hear so much about the “gut-brain connection,” but what exactly is it? When I tell patients that their gut won’t heal unless they heal the traumas and resentments they’re harboring, am I espousing hocus-pocus? Or is there a scientific reason to explain it? There is. It’s the vagus nerve. And it’s important to know that what happens in the vagus nerve doesn’t stay in the vagus nerve.
Here’s why: The gut is an enclosed tube with openings on either end. It begins at the mouth and ends at the anus. Medically, the inside of the gut is considered to be outside of the body. You can swallow something at one end and eliminate it out the other without it ever being in your body!
The gut is how the outside world enters your body. The term “leaky gut” refers to when the gut barrier breaks down, allowing toxins into the body.
Two developments have occured over the last 50 years that manifest in our overall health: Chronic disease has sky rocketed, and we’ve introduced more and more toxins into our environment. Concurrently, our guts have become leakier, allowing toxins to enter and creating inflammation that can present as Hashimoto’s disease, lupus, eczema, and other chronic conditions.
Curiously, one of the factors that influences whether the gut lining is contained or leaky is the nervous system. Remarkably, the gut has its own nervous system. It’s called the “enteric nervous system” (ENS) and it surrounds the entire gut tube. The ENS has an estimated 100 to 500 million neurons — the largest amount of nerve cells in the body. One primary role of the ENS is to maintain the intestinal barrier. Why would untreated traumas or resentments affect this nervous system? It all comes down to the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is a highway running from your brain to your gut — and back again. It carries signals in both directions. The vagus nerve operates continuously, regulating two responses: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Sympathetic is your fight-or-flight response and parasympathetic is rest and digest. The autonomic nervous system signifies an amazing part of human evolution and what accounts for human survival. When encountering a life-or-death situation, the autonomic nervous system protects us by redirecting the majority of energy in our bodies to the brain and muscles.
For example, if we ran into a grizzly bear while hiking, our best chance of survival is having energy to figure out an escape plan (blood to the brain) and running away if needed (blood to the muscles). It wouldn’t help our chances of surviving if we expended energy on digesting our breakfast burrito while trying to escape. If we escaped and were sitting by the campfire, that would be a good time to expend energy on digestion because we wouldn’t need it for survival.
While the autonomic nervous system is amazing, it’s not equipped for the digital age. Today, we live our lives consumed by notifications that direct our immediate attention to constant texts, emails, breaking news, Instagram posts, etc. It’s as if we’re running from the grizzly 24/7.
When we wake up, the first thing many of us do is check our phones. As we read the breaking news, our autonomic nervous system registers that today is a survival day. The sympathetic nervous response is to shut down digestion, suppress gut immune function, slow down motility (muscle contractions that move the contents of the GI tract), and suppress good gut bacteria. All these responses lead to a leaky gut.
Importantly, the key to gut health is our mental, emotional and spiritual health. Easy right? Not necessarily. As someone in recovery, I know all too well about denial and not wanting to address real underlying issues.
To improve gut health through healing the body-mind-spirit connection, follow these essential steps:
- Identify sources of stress. Sit in silence for 20 minutes and notice what thoughts come up. Many become uncomfortable with where their minds turn, or they are anxious to move on and can’t sit through 20 minutes. For my patients who are very resistant to admitting there is a problem, I order my version of a stress test — adrenal gland testing – to examine cortisol (your stress hormone) levels throughout the day. For some, it may be worthwhile to reach out to a therapist to talk about underlying sources of stress and support you on your healing journey.
- Express gratitude.Find moments of silence to focus on aspects of your life for which you’re grateful. These could be as simple as waking to a sunny day, relishing the warmth and shelter of your home, or appreciating the presence of a pet or a loved one in your life.
- Get into a regular exercise routine.Exercise is an important element for maintaining a healthy automatic nervous response. Think of your workouts as increasing “vagal tone.”
- Incorporate a daily Mindfulness practice.If I could choose one practice for my patients, it would be Mindfulness. Engaging in present moment awareness for 10-20 minutes each day has been shown to reduce blood pressure, anxiety and weight, while also improving sleep, focus, mood and immunity. I personally like guided meditations. Explore which practice works for you by trying a variety.
- Identify nervous system imbalances with a Heart Rate Variability monitor.Heart Rate Variability(HRV) represents the time between heartbeats. If the variations are low that means you’re in the sympathetic nervous response and your gut isn’t working properly. If the variations are high, you’re in the parasympathetic response and your gut is active. The monitor can help you create awareness and will help teach you how to create more variations. Hint: the key is learning how to breathe and stay in the present moment.
The overall message here is that, through our vagus nerve, what happens with our emotional wellbeing translates to our gut. To ensure the vagus nerve transmit positive, healthful messages, get out of your own head.
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Peter Kozlowski, MD, is a Family Medicine Residency graduate who has devoted his career to helping uncover the underlying cause of chronic disease through Functional Medicine. He serves patients in person and online via his Montana- and Chicago-based practices. His new book, Unfunc Your Gut: Boost Your Immune System, Heal Your Gut, and Unlock Your Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Health (Citrine Publishing, May 19, 2021), empowers readers to start their healing journey. Learn more at www.doc-koz.com.