The old adage that you should listen to your gut has never been more true than when considering your health. In fact, researchers have established a second nervous system in your stomach and bowel, which has led some researchers to describe your gut as your ‘second brain’.
Think I’m overdoing it?
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical have found that your gut controls digestion, releasing enzymes that break down food and distribute nutrients to the relevant parts of your body. This enteric nervous system is made up of 100 million nerve cells which communicate back and forth with your brain. In fact, such is the significance of your stomach and bowel, that the research is beginning to suggest that things like IBS, diarrhoea or constipation aren’t the result of anxiety. It might be the other way around: Certain things happen in your gut and this affects your brain patterns. This is pulling the metaphorical carpet out from everything we thought we knew about the body. And it should show us that our stomach and bowel health is far more important than we thought it was.
Here are a few things which can go wrong with your digestive system.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Known colloquially as IBS, Irritable Bowel is a pretty stock standard disorder that drives at your large intestine. It messes with the functioning of your digestion to cause pain. It is typically a collection of symptoms which all take place together. This might include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gassiness, diarrhoea and constipation. You might find that the pain is pronounced when passing a bowel movement, and that though you might try, you just can’t get it all out. You’ll never listen to Can’t Get No Satisfaction the same way ever again.
If you are one of the 3% to 20% of people who suffer from IBS, there are a few things you can do to alleviate the symptoms.
- Change your diet: If you avoid gluten but add fibre, you will lessen the severity of these conditions
- Get more sleep: Given the connection between your two brains, getting more sleep will reduce stress and help your organs to function at their best
- Medicate: There are a number of treatments which might be used, but it would be worth consulting a health professional before you go down this track.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
IBD is an umbrella term that describes two separate conditions: Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Both of these involve your immune system malfunctioning which results in inflammation of your gastrointestinal tract. Sadly, they can cause a fair bit of harm and require some intervention before they wreak damage on your GI tract. You might suspect that you have IBD if you have persistent diarrhoea, blood in your bowel movements, you’re constantly tired, or feel sharp pain in your abdominal region. Again, there are a number of different treatments which can be prescribed from your health professional, ranging from supplements to vaccines and ramping all the way up to surgery to remove sections of GI which are irreversibly damaged.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
This is better known as GERD which sounds about as nice as the disease itself. Essentially, your stomach is filled with all sorts of acids to help break down your food, and when these stay put, they are a helpful part of digestion. The problem arises when they start backing up into your throat. You can start tasting an acidic vomit-like taste in the back of your throat. This might be accompanied by pain in and around your chest and throat as the acid begins to burn sensitive parts of your body. It can actually be quite difficult to diagnose because it has so many other symptoms which can often suggest something else: Sore throats, coughs, bloody stools, wheezing, bad breath, tooth erosion, bloating, nausea. You can counter GERD by:
- Losing weight.
- Sleeping with your head slightly elevated above your feet. This way that acid is working against gravity to creep back up your oesophagus
- Cut smoking. An oldie, but a goodie.
- Don’t overeat, and avoid eating 2 to 3 hours before bed time. Lying down with a full stomach is like a ticking time bomb.
- There are also a variety of medical interventions which can help deal with GERD: Antacids, histamine blockers, antibiotics.
- If the case is severe enough, surgery is a last ditch option, but we generally try and sort it out with less invasive methods first.
Imagine being gluten free, but on steroids. The exact causes are unknown, but the high correlation of celiac and high fat low fibre diets in the western world is currently being scrutinised. Celiac is an autoimmune condition which prompts your immune system to overreact to even the most subtle traces of gluten. This response damages the lining of your small intestine which is how you absorb your food and nutrients. Essentially, you struggle to turn your food into energy and if not diagnosed properly, this can become a life threatening condition. Thankfully, this is far more common now than it was even twenty years ago and most people are alerted far earlier. Your first indications that you might be celiac include diarrhoea, weight loss, excessive flatulence, constipation or bloating. Sadly, the only treatment thus far is to completely eliminate gluten from your diet. It is worth consulting a dietitian to help you construct an entirely new way of approaching food, because even trace elements of gluten can become pretty damaging to someone with celiac.
I know this doesn’t paint a very hopeful picture of our ‘second brain’ – we have just found out about it, and all the news is negative. I remain somewhat more hopeful though. The best minds in medical research are exploring the repercussions of our gut health, and these disorders might not even exist in ten years time. In fact, many of the maladies which we just accept as ‘part of life’ might not exist once we know the true influence of our second brain.
Until then, look after your gut. It matters more than you realise!