From the time we are very young we are all taught that the control center for our bodies is the brain.
The good ‘ol brain! We rely on the prodigious power of our brains for virtually everything we do, from building the necessary knowledge and expertise to ace that important interview, to helping us focus on crafting a great email to our best friend or colleague, or playing a game of Balderdash with our pals… but is that really all there is in terms of running an organism as complicated as the human body?
Yes, our thought processes are certainly at the forefront, getting credit for our accomplishments and achievements, but how many times have you seriously considered doing something, only to decide that you should hold off because you just had this ‘feeling’ it wasn’t the right thing for you?
How many times has a feeling like that paid off when viewed in hindsight, and you have thought to yourself, “Whew! That was a close call…?” Of course, over the years, we hopefully learn to trust this instinct, and I encourage you to tap into this deeper “knowing” more and more.
This is commonly thought of as having ‘learned to go with your gut,’ but you may be surprised to learn just how accurate a statement that is.
It is only in about the past 20 years or so that there has been much actual science concerning the enteric nervous system, or ENS, which earned its nickname, ‘the second brain’ from Dr Michael Gershon, the neurobiologist who is considered by many largely responsible for our current understanding of the many functions of this complex and vital organ.
In his book, “The Second Brain,” he points out that the gut is actually the only organ that has its own intrinsic nervous system which is able to mediate impulses in the complete absence of input from the brain or spinal cord. In other words, the enteric nervous system has been found to be capable of operating independently of the central nervous system (CNS), but through its connection to the central nervous system via the vagus nerve, it exchanges necessary information with the brain and spinal cord.
While the second brain is not responsible for deep thinking like philosophy, ethics, religion or poetry, it is definitely too intricate and sophisticated a system to be responsible for digestion and waste elimination alone.
Equipped with over 100 million neurons, it communicates directly with the brain through the visceral, or vagus nerve.
Believe it or not, our state of mind and even many of our emotions can be transmitted to our brains through communication with the gut.
Sound crazy? Maybe not so much.
We have all felt the butterflies in our bellies right before making a speech or taking an important exam, haven’t we? This is part of a complex response to adrenaline production which, in more primitive times, would kick off a flight response.
Certainly, we have all had times when we are simply out of sorts or grumpy due to feelings of gastrointestinal distress (in layman’s terms, an upset tummy). But Dr. Emeran A. Mayer, professor of medicine, physiology and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles thinks that more of our emotions are very likely influenced by nerves in the gut than we ever considered likely.
In his 2011 in manuscript he states,
“Recent neurobiological insights into gut–brain crosstalk have revealed a complex, bidirectional communication system that not only ensures the proper maintenance of gastrointestinal homeostasis and digestion, but is likely to have multiple effects on affect, motivation and higher cognitive functions, including intuitive decision making. Moreover, disturbances of this system have been implicated in a wide range of disorders, including functional and inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders, obesity and eating disorders.”
Would it surprise you to learn that the enteric nervous system, actually makes use of more than 30 neurotransmitters, most of which are identical to the ones found in the brain, such as acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin? Surprisingly, more than 90% of the body’s serotonin lies in the gut, as well as about 50% of the body’s dopamine. Serotonin is one of the most widely recognized neurotransmitters in our bodies.
This chemical is credited with supplying our feelings of well-being, and is often regulated with medications called SSRIs, like Prozac or Zoloft (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) in people who are being treated for anxiety and/or depression.
I must tell you, this information blew my mind when I started to really get into it.
I started asking myself (okay maybe not in these word for word statements, but here’s the gist =) ) :
If the gut is producing such a large quantity of these important brain chemicals, wouldn’t any attempt at regulating them be reflected in gut function?
And, following that same line of reasoning, isn’t it possible that an unhealthy gut’s neurotransmitter production might be faulty, resulting in many people suffering from unnecessary disorders?
Not surprisingly, the answer is, “yes.” It turns out that the pathway to treating a host of disorders from anxiety and depression, IBS, and ulcers, all the way to Parkinson’s disease may be hiding in the connection between the two brains.
When someone who is suffering from anxiety is treated with SSRIs, symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome tend to be reduced, in fact, some IBS patients who don’t even have anxiety or depression are successfully treated using these drugs.
While I am not here to discuss the pros and cons of pharmaceutical therapies – that’s between you and your doctor – I do think this information is crucial in illustrating the importance of a healthy gut in maintaining a healthy and happy you.
Not so sure? I don’t think there is anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with the term “comfort food.” What images does it conjure up for you? A big, gooey bowl of mac and cheese? A heaping helping of biscuits and gravy? Or maybe a big, greasy slice of pizza?
Even the imagery associated with these types of food is evocative. We actually experience a primitive emotional reward from simply imagining them. This is coming from neurohormones in the second brain which relay a “reward” message to the brain from their consumption, according to the results of a Belgian research study.
What is it in these types of food that is so irresistible to us?
This study has shown pretty conclusively that it is the fats that we are really after. In fact, when introduced directly into the stomach through a tube (bypassing the sensory responses of sight, taste and smell), fatty acids were shown to immediately elevate the mood and dramatically decrease the sensation of hunger.
Our gut brain is primitive, and doesn’t really know the difference between healthy fats and unhealthy ones. Since we know that some fats are essential to a healthy diet, and we have seen their effect on mood, and emotional well-being, we can simply make sure we are consuming a reasonable amount of healthy ones.
I often recommend avocados, coconut oil and flax/chia seeds along with nuts and other types of seeds as ideal beauty and health fat sources. We know that fat serves numerous functions, from supporting supple, glowing skin to protecting the nervous system.
We just don’t need a lot of it to get these benefits, and too much fat, especially the unhealthy kinds found in those ‘comfort foods’ I mentioned, can actually clog up your system, slow digestion and increase your risks of accelerated aging in general, as well as serious health problems.
Gut check time
Long before I ever heard of these statistics or the study of gastrointestinal science, I developed a keen interest in gut health. Everything I learned and knew from my own experience pointed to the truth that maintaining a healthy GI tract is an important part of health, beauty, and a balanced lifestyle. I experienced it myself, years ago, when I started really focusing on balancing my own gut. My energy skyrocketed and my skin cleared up, and I knew there was something really to this whole gut thing.
I became passionate about learning everything I could about what made up a healthy gut.
Keeping your gut clean and functioning at peak performance is a primary goal in any viable dietary program. And ask you know (especially my friends that have read any of the Beauty Detox books), I believe in the value of ongoing cleansing to purify the blood and eliminate free radicals and destructive toxins. Adjusting your lifestyle to support ongoing cleansing/detoxification simultaneously cleans out your system like a gentle sponge while promoting healthy eating.
Ongoing cleansing involves such protocols as drinking the fiber-filled Glowing Green Smoothie, incorporating more beauty foods and less acid-forming, difficult to digest foods such as dairy and large amounts of animal protein, taking the right kind of probiotic, and other daily routines.
This results in clearer skin, brighter eyes, shinier hair, and stronger nails… not to mention a more flat, taut belly. When the body is in its preferred alkaline state, versus mired in acidosis, you will get sick less often and you will find that injuries will heal more quickly. Cleansing also offers powerful anti-aging protection.
Why? Because cleansing protects and protects our skin from the impurities and deficiencies that are a big contributor to premature aging.
But cleansing is not the only way to promote gut health, and thereby encourage whole body health. Your gut is an ecosystem all to itself, and the health of this ecosystem is dependent on the right balance of intestinal flora to keep it clean and functioning at peak performance by working with the intestine to help in the natural process of extracting the nutrients form your food.
Let’s face it, your GI tract has a lot of functions it performs, from regulating your immune responses to breaking down the foods you eat and correctly distributing the nutrients extracted from them before eliminating their leftover by-products as waste.
Yes, your gut is working around the clock to power the amazing organism known as ‘you.’ Even if you never consumed one thing that wasn’t perfectly designed to work with the gut, it would still be an awful lot to manage, but when you consider all the appalling food choices being laid out in front of us on a daily basis, it’s a wonder we are not even less healthy as a society than we are!
What is your gut telling you?
Thanks to our increasing awareness of the link between lifestyle and overall health and longevity, it’s important to nourish your dear gut!
I think it is essential that we understand that the process of eating, an instinctive and necessary activity that every creature engages in for survival, is something we can look at a little more carefully. We should look at it with an eye toward the payoffs, beyond the temporary pleasure it can offer and appreciate the bigger picture of the benefits of responsible nutrition (not to say that healthy, gut-supporting food can’t taste great, because it most certainly can. Who’s tried the Raw Red Pepper Endive Bites yet??).
How can we maximize the payoff from this essential activity so we can relieve some of the stress on our gut while reaping the reward of a healthier body and a happier state of mind?
Here are a few quick, easy to remember tips to work into your lifestyle that will help keep you on the right track:
- Hydrate! I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping your body well hydrated throughout the day. This is why I always recommend having hot water with lemon when you wake up. Be mindful. Every move you make, every breath you take results in the loss of necessary water from your body. We know that this can result in headaches and some muscle and joint pain, but it is also a leading cause of constipation. The regular and healthy movement of your bowels is a major linchpin in your ongoing gut health and your overall beauty.If you get bored with the taste of water, here are a couple tips: substitute some other refreshing coolers like coconut water, citrus (lemon or lime) water to keep things interesting during these sultry, summer days…and always start your day with a delicious Glowing Green Smoothie — a great source of purified water!
- Cleanse. The importance of an ongoing cleansing regimen to maintain a healthy GI tract is vital to your gut health. You will also notice a boost in your overall mood as you rid your body of toxins. Part of ongoing cleansing is ridding your body of old decomposing food which helps you to move toward a new and refreshing sensation of energy and vitality. In general, load up with more fiber-filled veggies, ideally at every meal. For more details on this ginormous topic, check out the Light to Heavy and Beauty Food Pairing Principles I outline in The Beauty Detox Solution.
- Eliminate processed foods. I really advocate the elimination of processed foods from any diet or lifestyle. They are not only toxic in nature, but are also so addictive that they cause you to crave more of the food that’s so bad for you! A diet filled with processed foods will leave you nutritionally depleted. It can also imbalance the microflora in your gut. Reserve your food dollars for products that are locally and organically grown. Your body and your gut will thank you!
- Use a reputable probiotic. The gut is its own mini ecosystem, populated with more microorganisms than you can ever imagine, and each of them is carrying out its own role in keeping you healthy and free of diseases and infections. Our diets are the farthest from nature than they have ever been in the history of humankind, we tend to miss coming in contact with the beneficial bacteria that populate a healthy gut. Eating local and organic can help reverse this. I feel so strongly about the benefits of good probiotic supplement and the need for you to have access to a product that you can trust which is why I created my own line of Probiotics. They are based in soil-based organisms (SBO’s) that mimic the healthy bacteria mix found in soil that our ancestors would naturally consume in trace amounts from farm to table (literally) veggies. Mother Nature knows best! Feel free to check them out.
- Balance your healthy fats. Yes! I said it is okay to eat some healthy fats. =) (in moderation of course). We know that our bodies need fats to perform many essential duties. As I have mentioned, always look for foods that are high in healthy fats like chia seeds, nuts and avocados. You don’t have to overload, but work them into your salads and meals. Your gut will use healthy fats like these to strengthen your immune systems, and aid in cell, tissue and joint repair, while helping to keep your skin healthy and radiant, and your hair shiny and lustrous.
Here’s to your healthy- and beautiful- gut! (And yes, beauty comes in many forms. After learning about how important and hard-working our guts are, I think you would agree with me it is indeed a beautiful thing).
With love and gratitude,
Question: Can you think of a time when you knew something was not the right thing for you, but just didn’t know how you knew it?