Emeran Mayer, M.D.
The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health
by Dona Winger from nourishmewellness.com
The Hidden Conversation
Have you ever felt butterflies in your belly before a big presentation? How about being put off your food by something someone said? What about nausea (or worse!) as you walk into a stressful situation? Have you ever based an important life decision on a “gut feeling”? Then you know that your gut can be pretty intelligent about the world around you.
How is this possible? Why do we feel emotions in our belly? In his book The Mind-Gut Connection, Dr. Emeran Mayer, executive director of the Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience at UCLA, thoroughly explains the emerging science behind these gut feelings.
It has to do with how our gut, brain, and microbiome communicate with each other. The gut-brain axis is an information superhighway that connects the brain to the gut directly via the Vagus nerve, and indirectly via hormones, peptides, and various other chemicals. These pathways go both directions. Not only do your thoughts and emotions affect your digestion, but your gut affects your thoughts, emotions, and even behaviors!
Why are the gut and the brain so well connected? If it were only meant to digest food, why would the gut need to talk to the brain? As it turns out, there is a lot of information in food. Also, digestion takes up so much energy and resources, that it is vital for it to be affected by the fight or flight reflexes. If we need to run away from something quickly, it is crucial that energy normally reserved for digestion be rerouted to peripheral muscles responsible for quick movement.
Interestingly, microbes living in our gut can communicate their needs to our brain as well. By interacting with the gut lining, microbes, such as bacteria and yeast, can increase sugar cravings, affect anxiety and depression, and even change behaviors.
“We are beginning to understand how gut microbes can translate information obtained in the food we eat into molecular signals that influence many of our body’s organs and tissues, including the brain…Moreover, gut reactions to specific emotions—positive and negative ones—may dramatically alter the mix of metabolites that gut microbes produce from the food—in other words, they’ll heavily edit the molecular signals our gut microbes send to the rest of our body…[microbes] exert a powerful influence not just on our gut, but on how we think and how we feel.”
People who are hypersensitive to gut reactions likely also have anxiety or depression. Since the brain and the gut are so closely connected, both need to be considered to help the patient heal from either digestive issues or what, in the past, has been thought of as strictly a mental health issue.
So the brain influences the gut, but the connection goes both ways. Gut microbes can control our emotions as well. In fact, the health and diversity of our gut microbiota may have a decided influence on depression and anxiety. People with a healthy gut microbiome may also have a reduced response to stress, making them more resilient to outside stimuli.
Gut Feelings and Intuition
Gut feelings and intuition are opposite sides of the same coin. Intuition is profound understanding without rational thought. A gut feeling is a “personal body of wisdom…that we trust more than advice.”
Where do these feelings originate? “Signals arising from the gut and its microbiome…are encoded by a vast array of receptors in the gut wall and sent to the brain…We only become aware of a small portion of their information in the form of gut feelings. Even though they originate in the gut, gut feelings are created from the integration of many other influences, including memory, attention, and affect.”
Interestingly, women seem to have better intuition than men. This may be due to a woman’s increased sensitivity to abdominal sensations due to potentially painful experiences such as menstruation and childbirth.
Optimizing Gut-Brain Health
There is more to optimizing your gut than simply learning what to eat. Here we can simplify my entire holistic nutrition certification and what I do as a health coach into one paragraph found in chapter 10:
“We cannot expect that any simple intervention by itself, such as a particular diet, will optimize your gut microbiome, while not paying attention to all the other factors that influence gut microbial function, like the influence of unhealthy gut reactions associated with stress, anger, and anxiety at the same time. Nor will simply eating your daily probiotic-enriched yogurt while continuing your high-animal-fat, low-plant-food diet, trying out kimchi or sauerkraut for a short period of time, or eliminating grains, complex carbohydrates, or gluten from your diet. None of these interventions by themselves will improve a chronically disturbed dialogue between the gut and the brain. Switching to a gluten-free diet even though you have no evidence for celiac disease will make the billion-dollar gluten-free industry happy, but in most cases, it will not have any long-lading effect your well-being and health. The science now says that changing your diet is not enough. You need to modify your lifestyle as well.”
Sleep, stress-reduction, exercise, improved relationships, and diet all influence the health of the gut-brain axis. All are needed to enhance your whole-body health.
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