Gut Health, Part 1: The Anatomy and Brain Connection
By Dr. Molly Casey
The gut plays an important role in the overall health of the body. It’s of far more importance than many realize. In fact, the gut is often called the second brain. Why is that and what does it mean? If you don’t know the significance that gut health plays in your health journey, or you do know it’s pertinent but are unsure why, then this article is for you. In this three-part series, we’ll explore the gut-brain connection, issues when there is a breakdown in gut health, and practices to promote optimal gut function and overall health.
Basics of the Nervous System
The brain is your control center. It communicates by sending electrical impulses with information down the spinal cord, and out nerves to every cell, system, structure and organ within the body. Those cells, systems, structures, and organs send electrical impulses back through the nerves, to the spinal cord, and up to the brain. The brain, spinal cord, and nerve roots are called the central nervous system. Just as the nerves exit the spine and enter the body, they are collectively called the peripheral nervous system.
The enteric nervous system is a large, unique portion of the peripheral nervous system that is found in the intestines (gut). This system can act independently of the central nervous system. The enteric nervous system is made up of two layers and is responsible for the process of food digestion.
The gut and brain work in what is called a bi-directional manner, which means the health (or lack thereof) of one system can impact the other. In other words, if the environment of the intestines is less than optimal, it can negatively affect stress, anxiety, and depression levels as well as cognition. On the flip side, poor health function can impact the gut’s ability to function optimally.
The gut itself has an enclosed environment within the intestines that help break down, digest, and utilize food. Microbiomes include the small organisms of a particular environment. It is imperative that the microbiome in the gut are in proper balance in order for the gut to optimally perform the functions of breaking down, digesting, and utilizing food.
It is common in this society to label foods as good or bad when, in truth, this isn’t the wisest practice. Instead of labeling the food, let’s look at what the food does to the microbiome of the gut. Why do this? Because if the food harms the gut microbiome balance, it will then negatively affect the function of the gut and the ability of the body to use the nutrition that is available in the food. With the breakdown of the proper microbiome balance, the body is at greater risk for other problems, including disease. Food itself is neutral, but what it does to the microbiome and ultimately the function and health of the gut is the question.
Gut and brain function and health are significantly related. When addressing the overall health of the body, a basic understanding of the anatomy and connection between the gut and brain is necessary and often overlooked. Elementary practices such as labeling food as good or bad is not wise and misses the actual point of how it affects the microbiome of the gut and the overall positive or negative impact on the body.
In Part 2, we’ll explore how improper gut microbiome can be at the root of physical and mental health issues.
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