Our Second Brain

Picture via: Neuroscience Stuff

Picture via: Neuroscience Stuff

Have you heard the term our stomach is our 'second brain'?  And I am sure all of us know about 'gut instinct'! 

However do you realize that our stomach, or gut, is literally connected to our brains via the Enteric Nervous System (ENS)?   The ENS controls our digestion, but more so it also plays a huge role in our physical and mental wellbeing - for me this brings special meaning to the mind/body connection, and why good gut health is extremely important.

The ENS maintains the biochemical environment within the gut - basically a network of nerves that go from your brain to your stomach to keep the digestive system working efficiently.  And vice versa your gut, or your 'second brain', has 500 million neurons, so although you are not aware of it, your stomach is "thinking", sending messages which can affect your mood, decisions, behaviours and emotions.  

To think of it in basic terms of this connection, lets look at the saying Gut Reaction - this can be attributed to a feeling, or a mood reaction to something happening in our daily lives.  Or alternatively if you have been effected by a bacterial or viral substance, our 'gut brain' can trigger the spontaneous vomiting or diarrhoea (or both) to help combat the invader in our body.  Pretty incredible hey?  

So giving it the attention our second brain deserves, there are two parts of the gut that we need to be aware of in order to maintain good balance: Gut Flora and the Gut Barrier.

Gut Flora:   Our gut contains 100 trillion microorganisms - almost mind blowing to comprehend!  It is only recently becoming more widely understood the extent of how our gut flora plays a huge role in human health and disease.  Good gut flora regulates normal gastrointestinal function, provides protection from infection and regulates metabolism.  When this is out of balance our bodies are susceptible to autoimmune and inflammatory bowel diseases, and can even contribute to conditions such as autism and diabetes 1.

Gut Barrier:  Our guts have a permeable barrier, and increasingly over the past decade there has been more recognition of when this intestinal barrier is disrupted, how it is a contributor to autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, allergies, depression, mental illnesses, skin conditions, low energy, chronic fatigue and a slow metabolism (Leaky Gut Syndrome).

Quite literally the gut wall is permeated with little holes where toxins and undigested food can leak out of the intestines into the blood stream, creating an immune reaction. 

The thing is both of these things work in tandem, so if you are suffering from one it is more than likely that the other is affected.

There are several contributors to bad gut health:

- Antibiotics and other medications like birth control and NSAID's

- Diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods

- Dietary toxins like wheat and gluten that can contribute to leaky gut

- Environmental and chemical toxins

- Chronic stress that weakens the immune system over time

- Chronic infections

- Bacterial infection and imbalances

If we are faced with any of the above illnesses or conditions, looking at ways to manage both our gut flora and gut barrier can be a starting point to improving our overall health, keeping both our bodies and minds in the best condition possible.  

So how do we do this?   As you know I always like to think of the positive first and what you can add rather than subtract...

- In general a plant based diet is recommended as it supports the growth of good bacteria.  This is also known as prebiotics - plant based fibres nourish good bacteria already in the large bowel or colon, and act as a fertilizer to promote the growth of many of the good bacteria in the gut.   In short..... Eat your veggies!!

Some good forms of natural prebiotics are garlic, onion, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory, beans, bananas and the skin of apples.

- Probiotics - A probiotic supplement boosts the good bacteria and keeps the bad under control.  It enhances immunity and can assist in many of the diseases mentioned above such as autoimmune disease, ulcers and inflammatory bowel conditions. 

Fermented foods also contain probiotics and are recommended.  Think sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir yoghurt, and miso.

Micro algae such as spriulina and chlorella are also good natural probiotics. 

- Coconut - All forms of coconut are particularly good for our guts.  You all probably know I am a huge believer in this one and just a reminder of why I love coconut oil in particular http://www.sachastewart.net/blog/2014/2/11/the-magic-of-coconut-oil

- Bone Broth - this is a bit of a natural wonder drug in my opinion and fantastic for healing the gut.  You can see my article here for more detail  http://www.sachastewart.net/blog/2015/1/20/the-old-fashioned-but-new-craze-of-bone-broth

- Sprouted Seeds - Chia, Flax, Hemp seeds are great sources of soluble fibre necessary for good digestion

- Drink lots of water:  2-3 litres a day - your gut needs water to keep waste and bacteria moving through the digestive system.  If you're dehydrated it can throw off the balance of good bacteria. 

The top foods to remove if you are experiencing gut difficulties are:

- sugars

- grains and cereals that contain gluten (gluten damages the intestine and makes it leaky).

- conventional meat (eat organic, grass fed and from known sources to make sure you are not effected by the grains, antibiotics and steroid hormones from conventionally fed animals)

- dairy products

- GMO foods

- industrial seed oils (Corn, Cottonseed, Soybean, Safflower, Sunflower)

- nightshades - tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers - although perfectly healthy in normal conditions if you are suffering from gut issues they can exacerbate it. 

- although important in a good diet, keep nuts and seeds to a minimum if you are suffering from stomach problems. 

- coffee and alcohol 

- do not eat late at night as your digestive system needs time to process the food through your body before you sleep

And for me number one in good gut health and the mind/body connection - manage your stress. Our bodies are never going to be in balance if we are constantly battling with chronic stress.  I know in our busy lives this is hard to maintain, but do as much as you can to try and keep it under control with good practices such as enough sleep, mediation and exercise.

So given the consequences of how much our 'second brain' can effect our overall well being.... go with your gut I say!