New Ways of Dealing with Stress
By now I think we have all heard something about the gut/brain connection. That is, how the food you eat affects your thoughts and emotions and how your thoughts and emotions affect the health of your gut.
How is this possible? There are a few ways.
One of the main vessels of communication is via the vagus cranial nerve. It travels from the brain and innervates the digestive tract. You can now probably relate – at some point in your life you may have received some bad news, followed by a terrible sensation in the pit of your stomach. Have you ever heard of irritable bowel syndrome or IBS? This is a common bucket term in medicine for when a patient comes in describing bouts of loose stool or constipation. Well, it turns out this condition has a lot to do with your thoughts, emotions, and feelings you are experiencing.
How about the messages from the gut to the brain? If things are not right in the gut, such as bad bacteria or inflammation due to toxins or food sensitivities, our head doesn’t feel right. The vagus nerve also secretes cytokines (chemicals that carry information) into the intestines, which impacts the health of the bacteria and lining of the intestines.
The second way the gut affects the brain is through inflammation. The gut will send out pro-inflammatory cytokines (again, informational molecules) – which activate the stress response by signalling to a region in the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then starts communicating to our pituitary gland to help regulate hormones (again, informational molecules) so it can start doing the work it needs to do. In the case of inflammation, the hormone cortisol will take priority. This intricate system communicates so well, it prioritizes an urgent response by setting off vagal tone. When cortisol production is in high gear, the vagal tone is low. It is the vagal tone that ‘reads’ the health of your microbiome, which then modulates inflammation. Overall, a low vagal tone will impact not only your mental health, but also blood sugar regulation (contributing to high cholesterol), autism, migraines, diabetes, heart health, and autoimmune diseases. Therefore, as the frequency of cortisol (stress, trauma) increases, our health decreases. It is important for you to understand this delicate ‘wiring’ and method of communication is our body’s way of protecting us from danger. If our bacteria are not balanced (more bad bacteria than good) then it will want us to ‘wake up’ by secreting more cortisol and take action.
“Inflammation can be sourced via gut health (through food choices) just as much as it can be from the brain (through uncomfortable thoughts).”
The PROBLEM is if we make this more of a chronic condition (ongoing) rather than an acute condition (how it evolved to be) we are going to slowly adapt to this condition. This is an important point for both your overall mental health, as well as for your physiology.
Let me provide you with an analogy. If you often have joint pain or headaches, you might be a frequent user of an anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Aleve, etc.). The more you mask the inflammation, the more you will normalize the inflammatory response and the more drug you will need to get the same ‘effect’ from the drug. Sadly, this is how addictions start taking over your life. Dampening the response system (remember that alcohol and nicotine are toxins), the more you will need this drug to feel a response (whether that be a sense of calm or a sense of excitement). Similarly, if you continue to ignore the stress (toxic thoughts) in your life, the more you tolerate the stress response and the more this becomes your normal.
Our bodies have an amazing way of adapting (surviving). We naturally adapt to small amounts of stresses to be resilient. The problem (toxic thought) is sometimes so small (think of it as a tiny leak behind a wall), we don’t even realize it is there until it is too late. Your thoughts are following a trend over the long term and that trend is not going in the right direction. Your contentment, or happiness, is trending down. Think of adverse child experiences (ACE). Every client who sees me needs to fill out an intake form on ACE. I have seen it myself and literature shows it as well, the higher your ACE score, the more your health suffers.
Thus, the moral of this story is … pay attention to what signals your body is sending. Do not ignore. Remember acute cortisol from time to time is normal – chronic is not. However, I understand how it is not always easy to detect low lying cortisol – just as it is not easy to detect low lying inflammation. If we pay more attention to what we are putting in our bodies every day, the puzzle becomes less difficult. If you want more information on what foods you should be choosing, I can easily help you out. A lot of this is not rocket science, as you know. Despite what you hear out there, this is not about choosing a certain ‘diet’. As Michael Pollan stated so well, eat food (a.k.a. nothing made in a production plant). Not too much. Mostly plants.
Then there are the other lifestyle factors we can easily modulate to keep our stress in check. These include sleep optimization, securing healthy relationships (this includes with yourself), exercise, and a strong sense of community. I interchange community with spirituality. The more you feel you are not alone, the healthier you become.
In summary, inflammation causes disease. Today I explained how inflammation can be sourced via gut health (through food choices) just as much as it can be from the brain (through uncomfortable thoughts). How you choose to perceive your thoughts and how you pay attention to your thoughts will affect the health of your microbiome. It will either cause your healthy bacteria to thrive or your bad bacteria to increase, causing downstream effects. The vagus nerve will sense the health of your gut and start communicating to your hypothalamus to choose a high or low vagal tone.
As a functional medicine practitioner and therapist, I simplify inflammation as having four sources: Food, bugs, toxins (environmental), and traumas.
On the next blog post I will provide you with tips on how to improve vagal tone. Until then, if anyone wants to get a head start on bringing down body inflammation, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.