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Gut instinct

Did you know that your stomach has two brains?

Your gut rules your brainSome people respond to pressure with their guts, feeling an ache in the belly, for example, when they sense an argument brewing.

Ill effects can range from a momentary sensation of discomfort to a fullblown attack of bloating, diarrhea, shakiness and disabling pain.

More than 20 million Canadians experience some form of digestive disorder every year according to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation.

And for reasons that aren’t clear, Canada has the world’s highest incidence of gastrointestinal (GI) ulcers and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

A dark, internal mystery

New research is revealing the surprising ways in which our guts exert control over our mood and appetite. William B. Salt II, M.D., author of Irritable Bowel Syndrome & the Mind-Body Brain-Gut Connection, says the body actually has two brains: one in the skull and one in the GI tract.

The enteric nervous system, as the GI brain is called, is located in the lining of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. Dr. Salt says that nerve endings relaying signals from brain to gut are so interconnected that they learn, remember and produce what we call gut feelings. That’s why emotional arousal, seasonal changes, antibiotics, hormonal influences – even food additives – often manifest as stomach aches. Triggers such as caffeine and carbohydrates can make matters worse.

A naturopath’s four Rs

Naturopathic physician and acupuncturist Dr. Jane O’Halloran of Victoria, B.C., agrees that emotional states can directly impact stomach health, adding that the concept of a two-way conversation between gut and brain is becoming more accepted in mainstream medicine. She recommends her clients use a four-R model for maintaining a healthy digestive system:

  1. Remove anything that taxes the digestive system, from a food sensitivity to emotional stress.
  2. Replace enzymes or other digestive elements that may be lacking or diminished.
  3. Restore beneficial bacteria with probiotics.
  4. Repair the intestine. For many there may be a need for nutritional support to heal the lining of the intestine and regenerate the microscopic structure.

Dr. O’Halloran emphasizes that the conditions sparking stomach ailments, such as genetics or a strong reaction to certain foods, vary among people, so don’t give up when treatment results aren’t satisfactory. “In my practice I often see across-the-board relief in other areas when bowel function improves,” she says.

More four-pronged advice

Dr. Jan Irvine, division head of gastroenterology at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, also suggests a four-pronged method for keeping your digestive system healthy:

  1. Eat a balanced diet, with limited amounts of junk food and sufficient fruits and vegetables.
  2. Maintain healthy lifestyle habits, such as sufficient sleep and exercise.
  3. Avoid antibiotics unless needed; they disrupt the “good bacteria” in your stomach.
  4. Listen to your gut/bowel. Don’t overeat when you are satisfied, don’t eat if you are not hungry and use a bathroom when the need arises.

“Examine your diet and lifestyle together with your doctor,” Dr. Irvine tells patients who have a functional bowel disorder. “Keep a food and beverage diary for a week and record any stresses, symptoms and bowel habits to show the doctor. Try to identify foods or other triggers, such as stress, that worsen symptoms. Restrict or eliminate them only after discussion with your doctor, who may wish to do some tests beforehand. Eating itself is often a trigger for symptoms and not necessarily the type of food. It’s best not to skip meals as food allergies are actually not very common.”

A word from Mr. Nobel

Finally, consider this quote from Alfred Nobel: “A heart can no more be forced to love than a stomach can be forced to digest food by persuasion.” For good health, your brain, your stomach – and your heart – all have to cooperate.