The Mind-Gut Connection

Written by Dr. Nich Pertuit, PhD

Did you know it is not just the type of food that you eat, but also the mood you are in when you eat that food, that can influence everything from how your body digest the food to even the hormones you release?
We already know that eating more plant-based fibers – in particular eating a rainbow of colors of fruits and vegetables – is critical to the health of your gut microbiome.

Your gut is very complex and, as we know, very important to your overall health. The lining of your gut, though, is not just mechanical in its breakdown and digestion of the food you put into our body. The lining of the gut is actually studded with a huge number of endocrine cells – specialized cells that contain up to 20 different hormones!

In fact, if you could clump up all of the endocrine cells in the gut into a single mass, it would be larger than all other endocrine organs – your thyroid gland, pituitary gland, gonads, and adrenal glands – combined. This means that the way that hormones are released throughout the body is drastically influenced by the gut and its amazing internal nervous system.

Hyperlinked

The gut and the brain are linked through bidirectional signaling pathways that include nerves, hormones, and inflammatory molecules. The close interactions of these pathways play a crucial role in emotions and in optimal gut function. What you eat affects how you feel, and how you feel affects the way your body digests food.

Bet you didn’t know that your gut has its own nervous system? This system is so complex and intricate that it has capabilities that surpass all other organs and even rival your brain’s nervous system!

This system is called the Enteric Nervous System, or ENS. The ENS is made up of hundreds of millions nerve cells – more than contained in your spinal cord – and the only organ that outnumbers it in number of nerve cells is your brain. For this reason, the ENS is often referred to as your “second brain.”

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Although the ENS is a part of the autonomic nervous system, which is ultimately controlled by subconscious regions of the “first brain” like the hypothalamus, it can also operate independent of that system.

In other words, its neurons aren’t just there to receive input from your central nervous system, they are there to send signals back into the brain itself.

Over 90% of your serotonin and over 50% of your dopamine, the neurotransmitters that you know for making your brain feel good – they are formed right there in the ENS. Providing even more evidence that when take care of your gut, your brain and body also thrive.

As amazing as your gut’s enteric nervous system is at turning food into energy for all cells in your body, your emotional brain can mess up nearly every single automatic function when you eat in a stressed out state.

If your brain decides there is a threat to deal with, it will aim to take care of that threat by responding within milliseconds to put your body into a “fight or flight” mode. New research shows that eating while in this stressed out state can negatively change your microbiome, increase fat storage, damage the lining of the gut, increase inflammation, and even cause the stomach to reverse its process and empty its contents upward.

Needless to say, finding a way to relieve some stress before you eat is paramount in your overall health.

Do Not Eat In A Stressed Out State

Find ways to eat your food while in a calm state. The research on this is clear: if you eat while you are stressed out, your body will not digest the food properly, you are more likely to store what it does digest as fat, your colon secretes more water and mucus, your gut wall begins to leak, and the amount of blood flowing through the lining of your stomach and intestines increases. 

Some of our favorite strategies for calming yourself before you eat:
  • Practice gratitude right before you eat. If you’re eating a meal it means two great things: you’re alive AND you have food to keep yourself alive. Those are two great things to be thankful for! Pause before you eat, give thanks for the food in front of you, smile, and then enjoy your meal.
  • Take four deep breaths. Expand your rib cage out so it feels like your ribs are opening up like an umbrella, hold your breath for just a two count, and then breathe out fully. Taking just four deep breaths before you eat lowers your stress significantly.
  • Sit down at a table and enjoy the process of eating. This can be accomplished with friends or by yourself. But working, driving or rushing from one spot to another while you eat will only increase your stress. Consider meal time a break in your normal busy day, and sit down to enjoy this process.
  • Listen to music that calms you and makes you happy while you eat. Restaurants have long used music to set the mood for your eating experience. You can utilize this strategy by turning on your own calming and enjoyable music at every meal.
  • Prepare the food yourself. The act of preparing a meal has been shown to be as soothing as meditation. Plus, it’s a great social thing to do with friends and family. The Italians are well known for this, and they consistently are ranked as being one healthiest countries in the world. If possible, make the preparation of food part of your family or social eating experience.

Want to know more about more about the Mind-Gut Connection?

Check out this excellent book by Mayer, Dr. Emeran. The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health. Harper Wave, 2016. https://emeranmayer.com/book/

The Mind-Gut Connection

Print out this PDF version and post on your fridge!