There is more and more research being done into how the brain and digestive system (our gut) influence each other. All the evidance and studies are proving that the link is very strong and that they both affect each other. In other words the brain does control the function of the gut, but the gut can have major effects on our brain and mood too.
The nervous system within the gut is made up of neurons, which are nerve cells that conduct messages, numbers are estimated at 200-600 million neurons. Aside from the spinal cord, the gut is thought to contain the highest number of neurons compared to any other peripharal organ.
The gut and brain (central nervous system) are connected by the Vagus Nerve which innervates the esophagus, stomach, intestines and other organs.
The gut is controlled by both the nervous system in the gut and the central nervous system in the brain. The nervous system controls many functions of the gut, which include the following:
- Determining the rate of movement and peristalsis of the gut
This will have an affect on how quickly or slowly your food moves through your digestive system, which will in the end determine how well you break down and absorb nutrients. It will also effect your bowel motions and even your chance of developing gut conditions. Stress can speed up or slow down peristalsis.
- Control the release of your digestive enzymes
The proper release of enzymes from the stomach, gallbladder, pancreas and mucous layers is essential for the breakdown of your food and for healthy bowel motions. Stress tends to slow down the production and release of enzymes.
- Regulate local blood flow
When we eat a meal we require more blood to be directed to the digestive organs so that they can efficiently do their work by moving the food through. Stress whether mental, emotional or physical redirects blood to the brain and limbs.
- Maintain the integrity of the gut barrier
The lining of the gut needs to be healthy and in tact, that way it can protect us by only allowing the passage of water and nutrients into the bloodstream. A leaky gut allows for the passage of undigested food fragments and pathogens into the blood stream. Stress is a contributing factor to leaky gut.
- Communicate sensory information to the rest of the nervous system, including the brain
As we have seen stress can create many problems in the digestive tract, including a slowing down of digestion and damage to the gut lining. These two things can lead to an imbalance of bacteria, inflammation and immune activation.
When all of these issues are going on inside your gut, it can mean your neurons in the gut become hyper-responsive to stimuli. This means they become more sensitive to stimuli, which is interpreted abnormally by the nervous system and results in excess pain perception.
Yours for great health,
Danielle Elliott, Naturopath