Ever wonder what causes ‘gut feelings’ and ‘butterflies’ in your stomach? Or why your stomach gets upset when you’re worried or fearful? There is an elaborate and intriguing system in our bodies that connects and communicates without any effort on our part!
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Our microscopic friends
In an earlier blog, we pointed out that your unique microbiome is so important that it is considered a hidden organ by some researchers. It started as soon as you were born, if not before, and is continually influenced by your diet, your experiences, what you’ve been exposed to and where you live. We also illustrated how vital it is to keep your microbiome healthy, and what can happen when this community of microorganisms gets tipped out of balance.
We depend on these complex social networks of microorganisms to help break down nutrients and produce important vitamins and enzymes in our digestive system, which in turn strengthens our immune system. And although it might seem strange, it has been shown that our microbiome is intricately linked to our central nervous system (CNS) through neural, hormonal, metabolic, and immunological signaling pathways.
Just as fascinating is that hidden in the walls of our digestive systems is our enteric nervous system (ENS), referred to as the ‘second brain,’ due to its ability to operate independently of the central nervous system. While researchers are still learning exactly how the ENS works and the full extent of its functions, we do know that the ENS plays a significant role in disease and mental health.
The main role of the ENS is to control digestion from start to finish. But because of its ability to also communicate with our brain through the central nervous system and autonomic nervous system (ANS), researchers are now finding that people with gastrointestinal symptoms may experience mood changes as a result. We outlined the ANS and its two branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, in our last blog on stress.
Our communication channel
Our microbiome, central nervous system, autonomic nervous system, enteric nervous system, immunological and neuroendocrine systems all interact to comprise what’s called our gut-brain axis. An essential role of this multidirectional interaction is to help the body maintain metabolic homeostasis.
Signals are sent back and forth between the gut and the CNS, which causes the hypothalamus and brain stem to regulate how your body consumes and uses energy. In addition, since roughly 70% of our immune system is in our gut, the gut-brain axis also allows our brain to monitor the interactions taking place between our immune cells and our microbes, hormones, and neuronal cells in our gut so it can respond to changes if needed.
Our multi-tasking wonder nerve
A special and significant part of our parasympathetic nervous system, and ultimately our gut-brain axis, is the vagus nerve. On page 165 in my book, The Longevity Equation, I mention that “The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It runs through the brain stem, esophagus, lungs, heart, digestive tract, and all the way down to the colon.”
When we are not stressed, the vagus nerve serves as a communication superhighway, sending sensory information from the peripheral system to the brain so it can monitor function, and transmitting motor signals from the brain to the rest of the body.
The vagus nerve has immunomodulatory properties and therefore it “plays important roles in the relationship between the gut, the brain, and inflammation.” It stimulates muscles in the heart, almost like a natural pacemaker, where it helps to lower resting heart rate. In the gut, the vagus nerve can even let our brains know the status of our microbiome!
A healthy vagus nerve helps us to access parts of the brain responsible for creativity, higher cognition, and complex decision making. As you can see, this nerve has a critical place in our bodies, affecting our thoughts, many internal organs, and our gastrointestinal system. Some say it is the key to our well-being.
Why is all of this important?
The function of the vagus nerve can be impaired by anxiety, poor lifestyle, smoking, alcohol and overworking, as well as lack of proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep – basically whenever the body is in a state of stress.
Simply put, stress inhibits the vagus nerve and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system to initiate the ‘fight or flight’ response. Since the vagus nerve plays a role in reducing inflammation, stress can conversely cause inflammation. Therefore, repeated and increased exposure to stress can counteract the parasympathetic system’s ability to help the body recover and contributes to allostatic load, which is the wear and tear of stress on your body and brain. In the end, this could hinder the overall protective effect that the vagus nerve has on the body.
This has particular effects in the gut where an inhibited vagus nerve has harmful effects on our microbiota and contributes to gastrointestinal disorders such as leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease. This disrupts our metabolic homeostasis and has a cascade of effects on the body. Consequently, it is imperative to do what we can to maintain a healthy and functioning vagus nerve.
Restoring the gut-brain axis
Bringing this full circle, there is an abundance of ways that we can create and bring balance to our all-important gut-brain axis, one of the most significant communication pathways in our bodies. We can monitor our vagal tone, supplement with high quality prebiotics and probiotics, meditate, practice deep breathing, and exercise.
Ways to strengthen vagal tone:
· Gargling vigorously with water after you brush your teeth every morning can strengthen your vagus nerve. This will help improve movement in your digestive tract and can help with constipation and a sluggish bowel.
· Chanting, humming and singing out loud help to activate the vagus nerve. Next time you’re in your car, sing as loud as you can!
· Deep breathing helps to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Inhale for the count of five, and exhale for a count of five for one minute. This then sends a signal to the brain to stimulate vagal activation and put us in a rest and digest state, rather than fight or flight.
· Tongue depressors stimulate a gag reflex and strengthen the vagus nerve similar to gargling. You can also use your toothbrush and brush your tongue far enough to produce a gag reflex.
· For the busy person, there’s one simple way to stimulate the vagus nerve, and it takes just 5 seconds to do. If you find yourself feeling sleepy, stressed, or lacking focus, you can use this to retune your nervous system. Here’s how it works: take a long deep breath, filling your lungs completely with air, and then let it out slowly. It’s that simple. Try it for yourself.
How can The Institute for Human Optimization assist me?
We believe that each person is truly unique. From DNA to iris, we all possess a blueprint that is genetically inherited and environmentally influenced. By gaining a deeper appreciation for the person on a molecular level and addressing the root causes driving disease, we can help promote optimized health through our unique scientific, N of 1, approach to individualized care.
At The Institute for Human Optimization, my team and I leverage the most cutting-edge advances in genetic testing, nutritional, and functional medicine to help our patients treat the root biological imbalances that cause aging. I believe that a long healthspan – not just a long lifespan – is the most important thing you can cultivate. A long healthspan means you don’t miss out on life as you get older. It means remaining independent and having the vitality to travel and see the world. A long healthspan means that you can be there – in full body and mind – for the people who need you the most and that every day will feel like a gift.
The Institute for Human Optimization provides the most comprehensive, data-driven, personalized approach to wellness. It is:
· Predictive – We use genomics and advanced biomarker testing to risk stratification and empowerment.
· Personalized – We use data-driven health information to curate actionable change for disease mitigation and prevention.
· Preventive – We utilize highly individualized programs tailored to your unique genomic blueprint.
· Participatory – We empower engagement in personal choices, which allows for improved outcomes and enhanced results.
Let’s work together to keep that communication open!