How often when you feel poorly for no apparent reason are you told, “It’s all in your head”? We think of the brain as the location of all thoughts and emotions; actually, even what’s “in your head” isn’t just in your head! You are much more tightly connected to your entire body than you might imagine!
We think of neuron synapses as belonging to the brain. They connect nerve cells and pass communication between them. A Duke University study found synapses with a certain type of gut cell, which fire when sugar is detected, and then sends the signals to the brain. This means that sugar in the stomach can be sensed by the brain almost immediately!
Signals travel among the vagus nerves to the brain. We expect certain signals, such as appetite or upset stomach to travel to the brain. We also expect the brain to direct digestion functions. It was thought that sensory signals were sent along certain neurons devoted to that purpose, while motor control signals were sent along different neurons.
At the University of Illinois, researchers found two-way communication going between the gut and the brain. This explains how thoughts can trigger irritable bowel or how sugar consumption can cause us to be hyperactive. The gut and the brain exchange information within seconds using the same pathways in both directions. This means very efficient, fast communication, and a lot more of that communication than was expected.
Good meal, good thinking
In a real sense, “happy gut, happy mind”, and the reverse, is true. One way to improve your mood could be to have a healthy meal. Have you noticed that “stress eating” doesn’t work very well? You keep wanting to eat more poor food, your mood deteriorates, and you want more comfort food. Eating low sugar, easily digestible food not only means good blood sugar and the nutritional benefits of the good meal, but may send “happy” signals to your brain as well. The ultimate “happy meal” is what your gut desires, not necessarily what your taste buds want!
We know that a good nutritious meal produces a better blood chemistry, which then gives your brain what it needs to work efficiently. But have you considered the direct impact of good food? Unlike stress eating, a good meal will signal your brain quickly, and you may find you are thinking better right away. Consider that when you are working hard and need to keep producing, a good meal could make the difference between clear, good thinking and just dragging through the rest of the day.
Also low serotonin levels lead to depression, and 95% of serotonin is produced in the small intestine. A good diet can improve your mood by promoting serotonin production.
Bad thoughts, bad health
Now let’s consider what happens to your digestion when you are upset, thinking negatively or stressed. Signals going to your gut will not be good! This can turn a healthy meal into a lot of food waste that the body has to eliminate, simply because your gut is not getting the signals that promote good digestion.
Chronic stress is particularly dangerous, as we impair the digestive functions day after day. This leads to progressive malnutrition and opens the door to various diseases. Even good food will be poorly handled if the brain is signaling trouble. This is why treating both mind and body is crucial to good health.
An amazing design
As we look at the body in detail, we see the same story everywhere: systems have multiple functions and are closely integrated. Our skin forms a barrier to keep environmental elements out of our bodies, but it is also an excretory organ that selectively removes toxins from our body. Our nasal passages filter and warm air entering the body, but we also have a sense of smell through the nose. Our breathing provides oxygen, but our lungs also power our vocal chords so we can speak. Classifying the brain as only for thought and body control, and the gut only for digestion, underestimates the amount of complexity and cross-functionality these systems have.
The gut has a massively complex set of jobs to do, and not all of them are food digestion:
- The gut contains approximately 100 million neurons, affecting mood as well as appetite.
- It contains about 100 trillion bacteria, over 35000 species, many of which aid food breakdown and nutrient absorption.
- As much as 80% of the body’s immune system cells are in the gut.
- The gut and associated bacteria synthesize vitamins.
- The large intestine absorbs water from food, aiding hydration.
These functions support the whole body, and many actively signal the brain. The body is highly interconnected, and it is quite likely we have not yet discovered all the ways parts of our body interrelate.
The apostle Paul said “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Also, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…” So honor all of your body to maximize your health!
Dr. Nemec’s Comments:
The two most important systems in maintaining your health are your nervous system and your digestive system. What you do to one you do to the other. What does this mean to you? The more stress you hold on to the more worries you create about a tomorrow that has not come yet, the more you not only throw your neurotransmitter functions that affect your cognition, memory and mood out of balance, but you also throw the digestive system completely in a downward spiral. If you do this to your digestion you just raise the amount of inflammation in your body which puts you at risk for all disease, including mental and emotional ones like anxiety and depression. Start by working on your diet and eating more plant foods that are more raw and uncooked. This preserves the enzymes which are so critical for cellular metabolism and function. Remember when you go to grab for food ask yourself the question: will my small intestine like this choice, and also my brain? I did not say: will your comforting emotions get a short term boost just to crash farther into imbalance? Food controls so much of our health that it is time everyone start taking notice and help out your body and your mind.