Do you feel it in your stomach when you get upset? Do you notice a gut reaction when you are anxious? The link between our brain and gut is expressed in our language: ‘Having butterflies in our stomach’ typically means we are in love, excited or scared. When something is ‘gut-wrenching’ it is extremely distressing and unpleasant. Or when we ‘have the guts to do something’ it means we have enough courage. – We more or less aware that there is a connection between our guts and our nervous system and the way we feel. Let’s explore this some more.
Research in the last decades has verified the brain-gut connection.
It turns out that the nervous system in the gastro-intestinal tract is much larger and much more refined than we used to think. It is so extensive that researchers have named it the ‘gut-brain’ or the enteric nervous system. The gut-brain is located in the intestinal wall and can be found throughout the entire digestive system. Findings from the last 15 - 20 years have shown how massive this system is: It contains more than a 500 million nerve cells which exceeds the number of neurons in the spinal cord!
What is in control – the brain or the gut?
This is an interesting question! The vagus nerve is the main branch of our ‘rest and digest’ nervous system, the part that controls our ability to calm and relax. It also controls specific body functions such as digestion, heart and breathing rate and the immune system, and helps to recover from stress. It is one of the biggest nerves connecting your gut and brain. Interestingly, the vagus nerve is a two-way communication highway between your brain and the digestive system: 90% of its nerve fibers are afferent which means they convey information from the enteric system of your gut to the brain – and not the other way around!
Stress affects the functioning of the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve develops during gestation and in childhood. A stressful or traumatic childhood may put the vagus nerve in a state of constant alarm that carries into adulthood. Stress will affect the intestines, heart, breathing and the immune system, and it interferes with the body’s ability to get to a state of rest and recovery. People who experienced traumatic events often don’t feel ‘safe in this world’, and this sense of unsafety can easily be triggered by day-to-day events. Generally, chronic daily stresses interfere with vagus function, especially when we feel we are under constant pressure, rush through the day and don’t allow ourselves enough time for recuperation.
The vagus nerve plays a vital role in regulating intestinal function.
The vagus nerve is the primary nerve innervating the gut. One of its many functions is to stimulate contractions to move food through your digestive system. Stress can inhibit the vagus nerve which changes gut motility. This may lead to spasms, pain, cramping and bloating. A dysbiosis may occur which means that the balance of the microbiota in the guts may be disturbed. Changes in the microbiome (your bacteria within the guts) may lead to inflammation, constipation, heartburn, Irritable Bowel (IBS), or Crohn’s. In other words, gut disorders cannot be seen separately from imbalances of the nervous system.
Intestinal function affects our nervous system – and vice versa.
An imbalance in the microbiome impacts the 500 million nerve cells or neurons in the gut. Neurons produce neurotransmitters which are chemical communicators that carry a nerve's message from one nerve cell to the next cell. Neurotransmitters are not only produced in the brain, but to a great extent in the intestinal tract as well. There they help to regulate nutrient absorption, blood flow and immune function. They also have an impact on mood, learning, concentration, calming, memory or happiness. The vagus nerve conveys all of these signals from the intestines to the brain.
Reflexology works with the brain-gut connection.
Reflexology gets to the root of health issues, rather than just treating symptoms. I was trained in Europe in Classical Reflexology as well as in Nerve Reflexology: We work with classical reflex areas such as the small and large intestines, the stomach, heart or lungs. Moreover, we work with the nervous system reflected in the foot such as the autonomic nervous system, the vagus nerves and particular nerves of the gastrointestinal tract. Specific methods such as resonance techniques, subtle touch and balancing procedures help to reduce stress and calm the nervous system. Reflexology has shown to be effective in addressing gut issues as well dysregulations of the nervous system, and the interaction of them both.
Other ways to support your brain-gut connection are cold-water-immersion, meditation, yoga, walks in Nature or even journalling. Any time we spend to ‘catch up with ourselves’ helps the nervous system and the guts get into a state of balance.
Do you have any question about this interesting topic? Don’t hesitate to contact me! Or please leave a comment below.