The gut-brain balancing act
Holidays can be a challenging balancing act, with many moving parts.
Sleep gets disrupted, tensions can run high, and meals are often rich and inflammatory, full of fats, sugars and simple carbohydrates.
Stress can take a toll, and it is usual to experience an increase in various stress-related symptoms. Keeping an eye on the gut-brain axis is a path toward smoother navigation of holiday travel, feasting and family visits.
First of all, what is the gut-brain axis? Many physiologists have called the enteric nervous system, the nerves of the digestive tract, the second brain. The digestive tract hosts the highest concentration of nerve tissue outside the cranium. This gut-brain communication is complex, and primarily regulated through the vagus nerve, along with the autonomic nervous system’s sympathetic and parasympathetic fibers. Emerging research has also recognized that the vast microbiome within the bowel contributes to these communications.
There are several health concerns linked to imbalances in the gut-brain connection. Emerging evidence suggests that impaired cognitive function, fatigue, food cravings, mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, skin disorders and weight gain may be among them. Many digestive problems are directly affected, including abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and gastroesophageal reflux disease, aka GERD.
So how do you keep the conversation flowing among the brain, the gut and the microbiome? To create this balance, there are three key steps. First, quiet the conversation. Second, nourish the team. Third, replenish the “good guys.”
For the gut-brain axis, keeping the conversation healthy means soothing the nerves so they are not overstimulated. Simple activities such as slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing can stimulate and tone the vagus nerve. Since this nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically also stimulates it. You can hum a song, or simply repeat the sound “om.” Even washing your face with cold water stimulates the vagus nerve. Meditation, especially loving kindness meditation that promotes feelings of goodwill toward yourself and others, has been clearly shown to improve parasympathetic nerves (which help the body with rest, digest, repair functions) and improve vagal tone. Chewing food thoroughly, putting the fork down between bites, and including bitter flavors in the diet may help.
Second step is nourish the team. As a naturopathic doctor, it is my bias that a well-nourished person has an advantage over an inflamed, malnourished person. So, supporting digestive function with enzymes, herbs and nutrients inherently makes the gut-brain axis more informed and balanced. A diet naturally rich in antioxidants and high in fiber is achieved by maintaining the recommended minimum daily servings of four vegetable servings and one fruit, with whole grains and diverse sources of adequate protein. Even with increased holiday treats, the body can maintain its balance if vegetable and fruit intake is a top priority for meals on non-feasting days. Successful ways to incorporate more vegetables and legumes into a traditional holiday meal are through delectable appetizers, side dishes and soups.
Third step is replenish the good guys. Balanced beneficial bacteria are a key part of the conversation, and unfortunately, alcohol, sugar, toxins, antibiotics, acid blockers and stress all hurt these good guys. An overgrowth of beneficial bacteria and yeast as well as a lack of biodiversity in the bacteria can imbalance the gut-brain communications and contribute to gastrointestinal problems.
Research has found higher-than-normal levels of the oral microbiome in the intestines of people taking gastric acid medications, so-called proton pump inhibitors. The concern is that the presence of oral bacteria in the colon is associated with an increased risk of developing some types of colon cancer.
When we suppress symptoms like GERD by altering gastrointestinal function, we create imbalances in the later parts of the system that can have deeper ripple effects on our balance between health and disease. The key is to restore function rather than suppress symptoms, and that directly helps the good guys.
As my uncles and cousins can attest, when I pass around digestive enzymes to anyone interested to try, their large meals feel less likely to just sit in their stomachs, as is their usual experience of overeating. The bowel flora love it if you invite fermented foods to your holiday feast. You can even consider a high-dose probiotic to augment immune function and balance the intestinal flora.
By practicing meditation and other techniques to calm the vagus nerve, promoting good digestion and a healthy stress response, your holiday adventures can be transformed. Balancing the gut-brain axis might very well be the best Christmas present you have ever given yourself.