In Traditional Chinese Medicine the digestive tract plays a pivotal role to the overall health of an individual. There is one school of thought that addresses EVERY chronic condition with the treatment focus on the digestive tract. Recently, I read an article showing that western medicine starts to think into a similar direction.
Neurogastroenterology is a new discipline, which studies the gut (that’s the gastroenterology part) and its influence on the brain (neuro). An independent part of the nervous system, the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) was discovered. It consists of more than 100 million nerve cells – this is more than in the spinal cord! It produces more than 30 neurotransmitters and sends uncountable signals to the brain. In this context phrases like: “gut feel” or “gutsy decision”, have a new meaning. With these discoveries it is easier to understand why food can be comforting or upsetting, sedating or stimulating. After eating, our intestines produce a variety of neurotransmitters, which activate specific centers in the brain. An example of a neurotransmitter produced in the gut is serotonin. A deficit of serotonin can cause symptoms of depression. Our gut influences the brain and its way to respond for example to stress, mood or learning.
Our intestines are the home of numerous bacteria. They play an important role in the digestion of food by producing enzymes. A new discovery is, that those bacteria communicate with the brain. Scientists are trying to determine, which bacterial strains affect our mental health. Existing studies show that taking probiotics for three weeks can change brain function. There is a possibility that recent changes in our diet, especially favoring processed over raw or fermented food, are the leading cause of increased incidents of diabetes, fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases and certain mental health conditions.
As research progresses, more and more links are made between mental health problems and the function of the Enteric Nervous System. Many patients experience positive changes of their emotional state and energy level after a few weeks of gluten- or lactose free diet.
How can we take advantage of this information?
It is crucial to re-establish good bacteria in the digestive tract. There are many probiotic supplements on the market. Supplements contain one or multiple strains of bacteria. Fermented food is a great source of bacteria. Examples are yogurt, sauerkraut or Kim chi. It is vital to eat a diet that contains good fats. We need good fat in order to produce hormones, fight inflammation and nourish the brain. Examples of good fats are fish, some oils and avocado.
As a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine I would like to mention that for thousands of years Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine has been a great method to regulate the digestive tract, encourage peristalsis (movement of the intestines) and the secretion of enzymes and neurotransmitters.
Last but not least some food for thought. “From what we eat, one half keeps us alive and the other half keeps alive our doctor”. Moderation is the key; even good things in abundance can become the source of a problem.
Article in Psychology Today, “Your Backup Brain”