Have you ever had the magical experience of “feeling butterflies” after meeting someone special? Or had a feeling that you were somewhere you shouldn’t be? This is your brain and your gut communicating, and so often we try to brush away these physical reactions away with logic, trying to talk our brain out of what our body is trying to tell us.
This is the nature and the beauty of the Enteric Nervous System. The ENS is often referred to as the second brain, and as the nervous system of the gastrointestinal tract, can act on its own to send signals to the brain that regulate actions. “The ENS orchestrates various gastrointestinal functions: digestion, motility, secretion, permeability, immunity (4).” Research shows that the information passed between the brain and the gut is bidirectional, and they work in tandem. I want to assist you in understanding the relationship that occurs between your brain and your gut, and how they keep you healthy or to let you know when there is a physical or emotional imbalance.
I recall a time in my own life when I was in an abusive work environment and like clockwork, every single afternoon I would experience a stomach ache. I naturally began to think they were caused by the food I was eating and began to cut things out of my diet left and right. I sought out the help of several medical professionals, begging for a solution. There I was, afraid to eat anything, suffering excruciating digestive symptoms and receiving no help from my Doctor. I felt completely hopeless. The situation was not remedied, no matter how "clean" I was eating. A mental health professional suggested the aches may be due to stress, and after I quit the job, the symptoms immediately disappeared. Suddenly so many experiences from my past made sense, and I was able to correlate emotional pain to physical pain. By gaining information about the Gut-Brain-Axis and the Enteric Nervous System, you can better recognize when the systems are communicating and connect more deeply with your body.
The ENS is a powerful and complex system that can be influenced by emotions. Communication occurs between the Enteric Nervous System and the Central Nervous System (CNS), via the Gut-Brain-Axis (GBA). This is a two-way street of exchanging “hormonal and immune responses, and have the power to influence emotional changes from the limbic system in the brain (3).” The GBA is the “linking of emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions (1),” telling us exactly why an uncomfortable situation causes digestive distress. Your brain is sending signals to your digestive tract, and now you will have the tools to listen and take action around what changes you can make.
The hormone cortisol is released in stressful, anxious, and fearful situations. They are alerting the body to a looming disaster. Cortisol communicates with the gut microbiota, the immune cells, and the intestinal cells, and over time has the power to alter the integrity and health of the microbiome. You can imagine that working a stressful job or being in a toxic relationship for years has the power to drastically lower the strength and quality of your microbiome and immune system. Studies have shown that even a more minor stressor which lasts just “2 hours has the power and ability to significantly change the gut microbiome profile, which causes inflammatory cells to be secreted into the stomach (1).” While stress in life is unavoidable, how we manage and engage in reducing the effects is up to us. The brain and the stomach are in constant communication, each having the ability to improve or alter the state of the other drastically. “The GI tract harbors the highest concentration of immune cells in the body (2),” and those cells are compromised by the activation of stress hormones over time.
The connection between outside stressors and internal disharmony is clear, what goes on around us can influence the health and vitality of our bodies if we are not properly addressing physical and mental symptoms when they appear. Yes, your stomach ache could be from consuming an excess of dairy, but it could also be from any anxiety you feel from your living and work situation. Research has shown that “failure to engage the appropriate response to stress has been implicated as an important factor in the onset and exacerbation of a wide range of disorders, including depression and functional gut diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (4).” By not having the proper stress management techniques in place, or by being in a prolonged stressor, you are altering the integrity of your GI Tract. “Effects of stress on the GI system can be classified into six different actions: GI tract movement disorders, increased visceral irritability, altered rate and extent of various GI secretions, modified permeability of the intestinal barrier (leaky gut), negative effects on blood flow to the GI tract, and increased intestinal bacteria counts (imbalance of gut bacteria, leading to dysbiosis)(5).”
Our society wears “I’m so busy and stressed,” like a badge of honor, implying that to be successful and productive you also have no time for managing the effects of those obligations in a healthy way. So at this point, you may be wondering after learning about the connection between our emotions and physical bodies, what exactly does it look like to take care of the health and integrity of the Enteric Nervous System? Managing stress is the best place to start. Getting started is the hardest part, but once you find that you feel calmer, more connected, and more level-headed you will make the time and expand upon what works best for you. There are a variety of practices, from yoga, breath work and listening to a guided meditation on your phone that reduce stress. The point is, is that you are actively taking time to relax your mind, body, and spirit, breathe, and detach from the stress of your current situation. A large-scale study in the United Kingdom, which studied the effects employees had when using a meditation phone application several times a week showed “practicing short guided mindfulness meditation sessions improved global well-being, daily positive affect, anxiety and depressive symptoms, job strain, and workplace social support compared to the effects of having access to minimal education about stress reduction, we also found a dose-response relationship between amount of meditation practice and improvements in our outcomes, with participants completing the greatest number of meditation sessions receiving the greatest health benefit (6).” Not only do these practices of only 5-10 minutes per day have an incredible impact on your mental health, but your overall well-being. Your body getting to the point of stress where it causes a physical impact like inflammation, IBS, and cardiovascular problems is not a badge of honor. However, taking the time however little it is, and putting it toward your overall health by literally just breathing is, I would say a badge of honor.
How can you strengthen the relationship you have with yourself?
1. Carabotti, Marilia et al. “The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems.” Annals of gastroenterology vol. 28,2 (2015): 203-209.
2. Obata, Yuuki, and Vassilis Pachnis. “The Effect of Microbiota and the Immune System on the Development and Organization of the Enteric Nervous System.” Gastroenterology vol. 151,5 (2016): 836-844. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2016.07.044
3. Rege, D., & Graham, D. (2017, June 27). The Simplified Guide to the Gut-Brain Axis - How the Gut Talks to the Brain. Retrieved July 14, 2020, from https://psychscenehub.com/psychinsights/the-simplified-guide-to-the-gut-brain-axis/
4. Million, M, and M Larauche. “Stress, sex, and the enteric nervous system.” Neurogastroenterology and motility : the official journal of the European Gastrointestinal Motility Society vol. 28,9 (2016): 1283-9. doi:10.1111/nmo.12937
5. Yaribeygi, Habib et al. “The impact of stress on body function: A review.” EXCLI journal vol. 16 1057-1072. 21 Jul. 2017, doi:10.17179/excli2017-480
6. Bostock, Sophie et al. “Mindfulness on-the-go: Effects of a mindfulness meditation app on work stress and well-being.” Journal of occupational health psychology vol. 24,1 (2019): 127-138. doi:10.1037/ocp0000118