The Second Brain

Ten years ago I wrote this essay for the inaugural Sleepers Almanac. Since then I have watched food trends come and go, yet what I find fascinating is the extensive rise of gluten free products that in turn, have paved the way for clean eating.

Ever thought twice about crossing the street or trusting a new neighbour or colleague, or maybe, have you had the sense that something unusual was about to happen? Perhaps, you have read of people who chose not to get on a plane that eventually crashed, because they had a ‘bad feeling’. Or, have you uttered the words, “I’ve had a gut full!”  Well, chances are, your belly was trying to tell you something that your brain upstairs could not put into words.

Our digestive system is an intricate cellular matrix of delicately integrated components, recently well documented as the ‘second brain’. It is home to over one hundred million neurons, many more than our spiny backbones. It can provide practitioners with an enormous amount of information regarding a person’s overall health, energy and their emotional responses. 

Naturopathically, we first learn how to ‘fix the gut’. Nutritionally, we know that excess junk food makes us feel lousy, and that comfort food cheers us up. But with the right approach, healthy food can actually provide us with an abundance of vitality and energy. 

Butterflies, nerves and nausea, even a woman’s intuition, may be a subliminal function of the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). However, the clinical diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome has recently served as a banner band-aid for a belly full of discomforting symptoms, stress-related illnesses, and worse, disease.  

The role of the ENS is to regulate the normal digestive activity of the digestive system and prepare it for whatever its future may hold.  

Like it’s spiny cousin the Central Nervous System, your ENS is a thriving population of healthy Intestinal Flower Power that loves to transmit and process messages from those diverse and unique bubbling hotspots: cells and circuits, neurons and neurotransmitters. 

The stress phenomenon is not specific; it is an all-encompassing umbrella complex that reaches out to every demographic on the planet, and may be triggered by an emotional, environmental or physical response to a wide variety of stimuli. However, stress is also an energetic force that can be turned into a positive, powerful motivational tool when channelled appropriately. It is imperative to remember that stress is predominantly our emotional reaction to a difficult situation that may then manifest in the physical body as a sign or symptom of poor health.

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Had a Gut Full?

How stress depletes the body of its vital resources is a complex and intricate mechanism.  Typically, the neural-transit and hormonal highways are tested to their limits, as they react with their ‘fight of flight’ responses.  The bulk of the energy used up in this comes from the adrenal glands, which nestle snugly upon each kidney, and produce the adrenaline hormone.  A constant stress reaction will ultimately see a decline in the amount of readily available adrenaline, thus resulting in energy burn out.  

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this may be diagnosed as deficient kidney yang. In the West, it earns the unfair nickname of ‘yuppie flu’, or more correctly, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but it is anything but a seasonal virus. Unlike flu symptoms that go away in a few days or weeks, CFS symptoms can hang on, or come and go frequently for more than six months, if not years. You might bear this in mind the next time you reach for your next cup of coffee and accompanying cigarette to manage that deadline… the worst-case scenario may result in you being the dead line!

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

IBS is one of the most common intestinal disorders, and differs from IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) in that there are neither lesions nor inflammation in IBS. It is a functional disorder of motility that has an unknown cause, however psychosocial factors (50%) such as anxiety, depression, neurosis and panic attacks may contribute to altered bowel motility.

Prolonged duration of rapid jejunal contraction waves and an increased gastrointestinal transit time due to diarrhoea may also contribute to IBS, as would constipation due to a decrease of propagated colonic contraction waves.

Gluten sensitivity or intolerance to products containing lactose may stimulate a spasmodic reaction in the bowel, whereas intestinal distension due to ballooning of the ileum, colon and rectum may be causative factors.

A diet rich in fibre and fresh fruit and vegetables is highly recommended. Fresh, whole and lubricating foods should be encouraged so as to prevent irritation of the bowel.

Trigger foods that are to be avoided include:

  • Red meat (beef, pork, lamb)
  • Poultry dark meat and skin
  • Dairy products
  • Egg yolks
  • Fried foods
  • Coconut milk
  • Oils, shortening, butter, fats
  • Solid chocolate
  • Coffee, regular and decaffeinated
  • Alcohol
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Artificial fats
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Beating those underbelly blues
Yoga and Pilates has been shown to stabilize the response of the nervous system to stress, removing the constant muscular tension produced by the repeated alerts from the central nervous system, and calming the involuntary symptoms of threat: the racing heart, sweating, anxiety – all roused by the Sympathetic Nervous System. 

A healthy nervous system enables muscles, organs and tissues of the body to work at full efficiency, and gives sharper sensory perception. It also creates a sense of vitality and energy. Sub-cortical regions of brain dominate from the slow, yet dynamic and static movements of Yoga and Pilates.

Bundles of fibers form the larger nerves of the body benefit stretching and cleansing with each pose. By clearing toxins from these tissues, the poses benefit neurotransmissions at the fine nerve endings, and at the synapses between the nerves. 

• Inverted postures such as shoulder stands have a cooling effect on the body. They also stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System, whose job it is to calm, relax and soothe the mind and body. Here, the spinal nerves leave the cord in pairs from either side of each segment, and branch finely to form the parasympathetic nervous, or the peripheral system. Relax! 

• Forwards bends are known for their calming effects on the mind and the nervous system. They encourage relaxation and help to decrease mood swings and irritability. 

• Spinal twists and backbends stimulate the kidneys and adrenals and provide alternate sources of estrogen in the body. 

 • Pelvic floor exercises tone and increase circulation to the entire pelvic floor. They can also trigger the contraction of the transverse adominus muscle, the deep underbelly corset that is the foundation of core stability and lower back strengthening.

This article was commissioned and published for The Sleepers Almanac – No 1. 2005

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