Last week we talked about gut health, covering off on some of the (big) myths that are out there, and also giving a few evidence-based tips on how you can ensure you’re looking after your gut. In that blog, I talked about the Vagus nerve. This nerve is a pretty big deal. It communicates with your brain, heart, lungs and digestive tract, making it a pretty powerful influencer of these major organs. It can affect the passage of food through your gut, your heartbeat and also your ability to feel satiated when eating.
Let’s take a step back, and meet the autonomic nervous system (stay with me here). This nervous system is constantly working, without us having to make any conscious effort. Thanks, body! There are a number of divisions within the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, and the enteric nervous system.
The Vagus nerve is part of the enteric nervous system. The cool thing about this nervous system is that it can act autonomously or, in other words, without your brain. Although it does send and receive signals to and from the brain, it can also operate by itself, which has led to our gut being dubbed our “second brain”. It’s closely linked to our digestive health and also appears to have effects on the development of some neurological disorders.
Although the enteric nervous system can operate by itself, it can still be influenced heavily by the other two divisions (parasympathetic and sympathetic). The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your “fight or flight” reactions, and your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for your “rest and digest” actions. Put simply, your sympathetic nervous system is the accelerator, and your parasympathetic nervous system is the brake.
They’re both extremely important, but overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to problems. It’s pretty safe to say that, in today’s society, stress is climbing. Longer work hours, fewer days off, less self-care, less time spent with loved ones, less activity and more time indoors all contribute to our heightened state of stress. In other words, we’ve got too much accelerator and not enough brake.
Stress has been linked to a rather scary number of poor health conditions, and one of these is decreased gut health. Bloating, pain, gas, diarrhea and constipation can all be common side effects of an unhappy gut, and often our first thought is to find the food causing these problems and eliminate it from our diet*.
Interestingly, a number of studies have begun to suggest that practising mindfulness may reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), just as effectively as eliminating foods.
Mindfulness practices appear to decrease the expression of genes linked to stress and inflammatory responses in study participants suffering from IBS and inflammatory bowel disease (such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), which could play a huge part in the management of these conditions throughout a person’s life.
So, whilst there’s no doubt that nutrition plays a huge role in the health of your gut, don’t forget to take care of the thing sitting on top of your neck!
*This is not individual medical advice, and elimination of certain foods is absolutely essential for certain individuals under certain conditions. Please speak to your GP or dietitian if you have any queries about this.