There exists a profound relationship between the mind, consciousness, our awareness and the Enteric System, aka the Digestive Dystem, aka the ‘Gut Brain.’ The following post unpacks the two-way relationship that exists between these powerhouses of our nervous system and how they communicate and influence each other at a profound level.
= Terms To Know =
Before we begin, I have included a few terms that are common to the study of the Gastric Nervous System (neurogastroenterology).
The Gut is a term commonly associated with the digestive system or alimentary canal or tract. This tract runs from the mouth to the anus and contains the organs of digestion, assimilation and elimination. For the purposes of this blog entry I will be focusing exclusively on the small intestine, our primary organ of assimilation.
Microbiota: The colony of bacterial microbes.
Bacterial, genetic material taken together as a group. “Bacterial cells in the human body outnumber human cells 10 to one.” The Microbiome numbers over 3 million in the gut alone and is suspected to effect many auto-immune diseases and certain cancers. (2)
A neurotransmitter primarily found in the gastrointestinal system (90-95%). This neurotransmitter regulates intestinal movements and appetite as well as sleep cycles, mood, memory and learning.
The Enteric Nervous System (ENS):
A third division of the Autonomic (Automatic – “Largely Involuntary”) Nervous System, the other two being the Sympathetic (Fight or Flight) and Parasympathetic (Rest and Digest) Divisions. The Enteric Nervous System is the localized nervous system of the gastrointestinal tract. It monitors the state of the gastrointestinal system, modulates gastric functions and communicates directly with the Central Nervous System.
The two-way communication system that exists between the Central Nervous System and the Enteric Nervous System.
Consciousness and emotional states are two aspects of being that are thought to go hand in hand. Simply stated, if we are conscious then we have the capacity to “feel” or experience emotions.
The current medical and psychological paradigm anchors the experience of consciousness within the central nervous system or “behind our eyes.” The fluctuations of consciousness, or our thoughts, stimulate the release of certain chemicals which we then, through past experience and conditioning, label as emotions. These fluctuations may be overtly conscious or even subconscious in nature – whatever their origin, they bring about a condition of the body in which we “feel” a state of emotion. Current medical thinking suggests that the origin of the stimulation of our emotional state is solely in our mind.
Recent studies, however, are beginning to suggest that the “condition” of other areas of our body have a major impact on our emotional and mental states. One of the regions of the body receiving a great deal of attention due to its potential impact on our ability to “digest” stress, is the gut.
We can see the connection between our gut and our mind played out in our lives through the impact that stress or anxiety has on our appetite or ability to assimilate food, as well as patterns of elimination (read nausea, constipation or diarrhea). The popular thinking is that the mind is taking its’ drama out on the gut. However, this may not be entirely accurate. The communication between the gut and the brain is a two way street, one from mind -> gut and the other from the gut -> mind.
= Mind To Gut =
From the Mind-To-Gut perspective, it is our mental activity that initiates gastrointestinal discomfort. Under this model, a problem begins with our repeated exposure to stress. Our mental response to this stress promotes an acidic environment within the intestinal tract, stimulating the release of pro-inflammatory cells which dramatically effects the gut-based neurotransmitter Serotonin. According to gastroenterologists (physicians specializing in the digestive system), Serotonin’s primary purpose in the gut is to promote the movement of food through the intestines as well as stimulating the Vagal Sensory Neurons situated there (important for the sensation of nausea). Note: the Vagus nerve, or Tenth Cranial Nerve, is the primary nerve associated with the Parasympathetic Nervous System division and it has numerous branches running throughout our body that innervate our cardiorespiratory and digestive systems.
Stimulation of the Vagal neurons within the gut increases the relaxation response of the Parasympathetic Nervous System. However, if you are feeling stressed out and upset, the volume of the Vagus nerve is turned down. This communication between the neurotransmitter Serotonin and the Vagus receptors in the gut sends a message to the Central Nervous System via the neurotransmitter “back channel” (completely outside the bounds of the conscious mind space), reporting on the condition of the environment down here. This communication, once it is parsed by the Central Nervous System, establishes an underlying sensation of well-being if everything is running smoothly or dis-ease if there is a problem.
= Gut To Mind =
When we begin to consider the impact that the gut can have on our general state of consciousness, we have to understand the nature of consciousness of the communities that are housed there. The communities I am talking about are the gastrointestinal flora or the microbiota. Believe it or not, this bacterial community is made up of flora donated to us by our mothers during birth, bacterial hitch-hikers that we pick up from the environment (eating dirt as a child, etc.) and bacteria shared by the individuals around us. Throughout our life we collect and synthesize this flora, which symbiotically helps us to break down and assimilate nutrients within the digestive system.
From a Gut-To-Mind perspective, the condition or health of this colony has a powerful impact on our mental state and well-being, including the health of our immune system. The condition of the microbiota boils down the condition of each individual bacteria.
‘How can an individual bacteria contribute to the community which then affects the larger environment of the digestive tract?’ The answer lies in the movements of single celled organisms within their native environment. These movements have been studied for years and show that these individual microbes are actively, selectively, intelligently responding to stimuli from their environment and intelligently adapting to it. At the same time, these microbes are communicating with their environment and fellow colonists. The collective communication of the microbiota signifies the general state of the colony. At any one time there are three primary states that the colony can be in: Thriving, Surviving or Dying. Each state creates a specific “group response” that in turn effects the environment of the gut as a whole.
• Thriving is a state of overgrowth, an example of this would be Candida or Thrush. In a Thriving state, the Mircobiota seeks out nutrients – in advanced stages Candida even sends out roots or hyphae which may pry apart the epithelial lining of the intestinal tract (the cause of Leaky Gut Syndrome).
• Surviving is a balanced and healthy state within the body. Surviving, the flora is in a healthy balanced state of equilibrium stimulating, through the release of neurotransmitters, a response of well being to the host.
• Dying is a state in which the microbiota are being killed off. This can occur from the intake of antibiotics, processed foods, environmental toxins, etc. In a Dying, the flora is in a state of alarm. This state of alarm, due to chemical signaling, when reported back to the Central Nervous System, has the potential to effect our overall sense of well being.
In each of these states the microbiota are producing chemicals and interacting with their environment. The state of the environment dictates the levels of neurotransmitters that are released and thus the level of Sympathetic or Parasympathetic nervous system stimulation as well as gut motility and sensations of nausea. This stimulation has a direct effect on the condition of our conscious awareness – although the influence may be so subtle as to go unnoticed other than registering a general state of unease.
Here we see the first stages of how the collective consciousness or state of the Microbiota begins to influence our consciousness. The overall state of the colony effects the environment of the gut, the environment of the gut effects the levels of chemicals, neurotransmitters and nutrients assimilated, the levels of neurotransmitters released by the cells lining the gut influence the state of awareness of the Central Nervous System, in turn creating an under current that ripples beneath our conscious thought processes bringing about a specific mood or state of mind.
This new and radical way of looking at the interaction between our mind and gut is even being recognized within the hallowed halls of psychiatric medicine. A select group of psychiatrists are now not only including their patient’s gastrointestinal history as part of their pre-treatment assessments, but also prescribing rounds of targeted probiotics along with psychotherapy and conventional medication. Patient feedback and recent clinical trails are just beginning to show that targeted “probiotics could affect the functioning of the human brain.” (6)
How influential is this collective bacterial consciousness?
When looking at the sheer numbers, the effect the microbiota has on our general state of being cannot be ignored. From a simple genetic perspective, if we were to take an average human being and divide up the entire pool of genetic material into ours and theirs, it would look like this:
1) Native Human Genetic Material: Approx. 20,000 – 25,000 Genes
2) Microbiome Genetic Material: Approx. 3.3 Million Genes (1)
These numbers are staggering. When one reads this research, a fundamental shift of awareness begins to dawn that we are not necessarily the autonomous island of self-cells as was once thought. We are in fact a collective of highly specialized and efficient communities that have come together for the sole purpose that is our existence.
= STEWARDSHIP: Taking care of your Microbiota =
Now that we have an idea that our mind-body connection is influenced by our intestinal passengers, what can we do to create an environment that facilitates a healthy, happy relationship? It so happens that we can do several things to ensure domestic tranquility down under.
Ayurveda, “the science of life,” is a comprehensive, complimentary alternative medicine system that is over 5,000 years old. In Ayurveda, food is considered to be a powerful medicine. This perspective makes perfect sense when we realize that everything we take into our body is used to create the tissues that make it up. To assist our microbiota we should begin by eating foods that are calming and nutritive to our intestinal flora. Eating foods that “feed” the microbiota is especially important. Foods that are nutritious to our intestinal flora include high-fiber foods, leafy greens, bananas, onions and even garlic (depending on one’s internal temperament). A diet low in sugar is also important as unhealthy bacteria seem to thrive on it. Eating pesticide free, non-Genetically Modified (GMO – the ‘O’ stands for ‘Organism’) Foods, is critical to microbiota health as well as provides the healthy building blocks for our cellular constituents. Probiotics, good bacterial flora that we eat, are also important to the health of our digestive system. Each type of probiotic has specific benefits that assist the body, be sure to stay informed as to what you are taking into your body…remember, awareness first!
Antibiotics, necessary in some cases to protect us from unwanted bacterial infections, also do damage to the good bacteria of our gut. Unfortunately antibiotics are over prescribed, even in cases where they do very little good – such as viral infections. Overexposure to antibiotics is the most common reason that our gastric flora becomes weakened, unhealthy and enters into a state of dying. In this state, even if we are able to break down the foods we have eaten, assimilation becomes difficult.
Adequate sleep is critical to the overall health of our digestive system. A full, restful sleep cycle allows the body to heal in instances where there is damage to the body, including the to digestive system. Lack of sleep contributes to greater overall stress levels, inhibiting proper functioning of the stomach and small intestine. By getting enough quality sleep we decrease stress and increase the efficiency of our digestive system.
Mental Health & Wellness
Even though they don’t have mouths to communicate with us, each of our cells is intrinsically linked to our state of mind. In fact, our mental and emotional states are broadcast across the ‘entangled’ airwaves of our body, communicating the general condition of the body and mind at all times to all our cells. The “spooky” truth is that these cells don’t necessarily have to be inside our body or even in close proximity to be impacted by our thoughts or emotions.(4)(5)
Maintaining a healthy positive outlook is like taking a mental probiotic. Take time each day to become aware of the sensations in your gut and send good vibes to your digestive system. This can be in the form of creative visualizations (perhaps a happy smiling stomach – like the plush toy above) or mental repetition (i.e. affirmations, mantra etc.). This can go a long way to not only keeping your flora happy and healthy but also strengthening the lines of communication and awareness between your Central and Enteric Nervous Systems.
The bottom line: our consciousness is not just effected by what’s going on behind our eyes. There are many influences that are beyond the realm of our awareness, contributions from the microbiota being one. Research indicates that this body, which we normally associate as just being us, is composed not only of our own ‘Self’ cells but also a whole host of others that contribute to the sensations, chemicals and mental impressions associated with the experience of being alive. These bacterial colonists not only assist us in nurturing our body but also play a major role in regulating the experience of our mental and emotional states.
1. Scientific American. June 2012. The Ultimate Social Network. Pg. 37 – 43.
2. The Microbiome. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microbiome
3. Some of My Best Friends Are Germs. Micheal Pollan. May 15, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
4. Julie Motz, “Everyone an Energy Healer: The Treat V Conference” Santa Fe, NM, Advances: The Journal of Mind-Body Health, vol. 9 (1993).