Our gut has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system. This system sends signals all day to the brain to do things we need to do such as make hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes to help digest food . On top of this we have over 500 million nerves in our stomach. These nerves communicate with the brain throughout the day, and send signals through neurotransmitters and hormone signaling molecules to do the things that we need to do to digest our food properly.
Within the gut there are a couple of important chemicals known as serotonin and dopamine that directly influence our mood. Most of us know these to be in our brain, but actually 90% of our serotonin and 50% of our dopamine are actually made in our intestine!
Why are Serotonin and Dopamine so important?
They're responsible for things like our mood and our happiness, without them we have more anxiety and depression.
Serotonin also has a direct influence on the motility of our stomach, meaning keeping things moving through at the correct pace. Ever notice when you're really anxious, you feel it in your stomach, and you end up in the bathroom a little more frequently than normal… that’s that nervous stomach we speak of.
Dopamine influences our mood as well as our mental sharpness and clarity. So these two things are directly related. And if you think about IBS, irritable bowel syndrome, not to be confused with inflammatory bowel disease, we've studied that it's directly related to all these nerves in our stomach. So the nerves signal us to do things like..go to the bathroom. When we are stressed or anxious (aka fight or flight mode), these signals get crossed and the key components we need to help with digestion fail to be made.
Let’s take a further look inside. Inside our gastrointestinal tract there Is this ecosystem called the microbiome, and this microbiome influences so much of our health. We want our microbiome to be filled with healthy gut bacteria. When there's damage to this system , or an imbalance of good bacteria to bad bacteria , it throws our whole ecosystem off , weakens the lining of our intestines and can eventually lead to something called increased intestinal permeability, aka “leaky gut.”
A huge culprit of this disruption is stress, or cortisol.
Cortisol is made by our adrenal glands, which are these little glands that sit on top of our kidneys. During times of stress, our adrenals spit out excess cortisol. But cortisol like anything else needs to be in perfect balance. We don't want too much of it, or too little.
Let’s review quickly about cortisol ….
Cortisol is made in times of stress to protect us, it’s our flight or fight response. If you were being chased by a tiger, cortisol would rise and allow you to run or fight. So it rises, then it's supposed to be able to come back down, that's a normal response .
Here’s the thing, the body cannot tell the difference between actual Stress ( being chased by a tiger), Or perceived stress (our thoughts). So instead of these rises and falls, cortisol tends to stay elevated for much longer than we need.
Each time we produce cortisol the body has a choice to make. It says, ok I need to fight so I’m going to send all my energy to my vital organs ...the heart, lungs , and brain . So what takes a hit...our intestines. I mean why does the body need to worry about digesting food when we are in fight mode??? So our digestion is significantly impaired! On top of this, The continuous release of cortisol weakens the intestinal lining, causing it to spring a leak leading to leaky gut.
What exactly is leaky gut ??
Leaky gut occurs when the intestinal lining for lack of better terms springs a leak, so things that are supposed to be pulled out and eliminated are leaking through into our blood stream. These are known as Endotoxins, and are very damaging to the body. What happens when toxins enter the bloodstream, we start to see things like skin rashes, brain fog, bloating, inflammation, hair loss, anxiety and depression just to name a few .
This disrupts the microbiome, that ecosystem I mentioned and now we have an imbalance of bad bacteria vs. good bacteria .
Ok back to the brain connection ...
So remember how I said most of our serotonin and dopamine are made in our intestine? Well now we have a disruption in this production aka our happy hormones . We also make most of your melatonin in the Gut, this hormone is responsible for helping us sleep! Often the sleep problems we have can also be related to the gut, which impairs healing ...insert vicious cycle!
So what do we do?
Physical healing also involves healing the mind. As you now see… it’s all connected . So we must start there. I know this is easier said than done, but here are some practical tips!
Practice mindfulness :
Slow down :
• Adaptogens: I understand stress is inevitable , but we can certainly help our body adapt and handle the stress coming in. An adaptogen is a plant that helps your body adapt to stress. These ancient herbs have been used for years and are a staple in my daily routine .
Try these changes today !