Your Gut Health and Your Nervous System – Is there Link?

When you have faced an important decision in your life, and let us say for the sake of your health, whether to go on a ketogenic or paleo diet, you may have decided to ‘’go with your gut.’’

It may be a saying that has been thrown around quite casually, but what does it mean? Is your gut really at odds with your brain? Is there a difference between the two? Or is there actually a connection between your gut and your brain?

When it comes to gut health, we all want to ensure we are giving our gut the best attention and care. Your gut is your gastrointestinal tract that starts from your mouth and ends at your anus. You have heard of the saying, ‘’what goes in, must come out.’’

This is true of our gut; what we take in reflects our output, and this can affect anything from our memory, mood, and mentality to the strength of our immune system in fighting off viruses.  This is to do with our ‘’second brain,’’ as our gut is called, and it has a deep connection to our brain - the one in our skull. How we feed our gut greatly affects how our nervous system reacts, so let’s find out more about how this happens.

Scientists have referred to the gut as the enteric nervous system, or ENS. Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, explains that the ENS’ ‘‘main role is controlling digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient absorption to elimination’’.

He goes on further to mention that ‘‘The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain—with profound results.”

Our gut is more important than we think, and research has shown this to be true. The communication that goes on between our two brains is mind boggling, so let us look further at how the two work in harmony.

The health of our brain is affected by the health of our diet. According to an article by Dr Fernando Gomez-Pinilla and Alexis G. Gomez, ‘’healthy diets, such as those rich in omega-3 fatty acids and curcumin, have been shown to elevate levels of molecules important for daily brain function…dietary supplementation with nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids and those of the herb curcumin can exert their influences on repair and maintenance of neural circuits important for learning and memory for locomotion.’’

This means that if we are giving our gut plenty of good food that is high in omega-3 and herbs such as turmeric, this can contribute to our brain and nervous system working effectively, especially when it comes to learning and memory recall.  The link between a healthy gut and a healthy nervous system cannot be overstated enough!

There is even more evidence to prove that an unhealthy gut has a direct bearing on an unhealthy nervous system. A study published in April 2017 in the journal Microbiome found that people with chronic fatigue syndrome may have imbalances in the gut microbiome, which consists of the bacteria, microorganisms, fungi, and viruses present in the gastrointestinal tract.

Researchers also found that almost half of the people with fatigue also had IBS. And a review published in February 2020 in The Journal of Headache and Pain found that while the link isn't totally clear, the gut-brain connection may impact migraines as well.

The review found that there is also a link between migraines and other conditions related to gut health, including IBS. Tiredness and migraines are not just a sign of doing too much work; it is a sign that we are not giving our gut what it really needs. We need to eat healthy to keep our brains healthy.

Let us backtrack and look at an important part of the gut that we should discuss, human waste. In one article on Everyday Health, Dr Rosia Parrish, a naturopathic doctor, notes that ‘’a healthy gut is usually functioning properly when you have a bowel movement one to two times daily that is well-formed and easy to pass.’’

Our stool movements are another sign of a healthy, functioning gut or not. Healthy stools are brown in colour, look like a hot dog or banana in shape, and should not take more than 15 minutes to pass when you need to go. And if it isn’t brown in colour, comes out in pellets, and takes longer than 15 minutes to come out, that may be a sign of constipation, which has links to stress, as well as lack of sleep, and even more serious mental issues like depression.

Do you think that it’s important to think about what you eat?

The ENS, or our gut, plays a significant role in how our nervous system, or how our brain works. What we feed our gut feeds our brain, and how our gut reacts directly influences how our brain reacts. There are still more lines of research to be done in this regard, but we can reasonably conclude from the evidence gathered that the verdict is in: we are what we eat.

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