ON AYURVEDA, STRESS, DIGESTION + THE MICROBIOME
A year ago, Jenn and I shared a 3-part blog post series highlighting the importance of our microbiome- the collection of microbes that inhabit just about every part of the human body and assist in vital functions essential for human survival. Part I breaks down my experience last year with an ear infection, antibiotics, and my quest to better attend to my microbiome; Part II gets into how your microbiome can benefit from a hygiene product upgrade; and in Part III Jenn gives us an environmental approach to consider when the self-care product overhaul gets overwhelming.
This fall, we will be leading our 4th Ayurveda, Alignment + Yoga Retreat experience with Claire Ragozzino as our chef in the kitchen and guide on all things digestion. The last time we had her on the blog (this soulful Q+A) was before we jetted off to Tulum together. It has been far too long and we couldn't be more excited to have her here with us today contributing a Part IV, if you will, to this microbiome series.
In physical therapy school, I had a mentor who really pushed me to explore the connection between my patient's mental, emotional + physical symptoms and their gut health. He turned me onto the book, "The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine" by Micheal D. Gershon, MD. Steeping myself in eastern medicine, my Ayurvedic studies had taught me that there was a major brain-gut connection. I was relieved to finally be introduced to some western literature that discussed how the nerves that interconnect the nervous system in the gut (ENS) and the nervous system in the brain (CNS) can be conduits for disease to spread.
Research is linear and analytical and leaves little room for more abstract and intuitive thinking, thus it's hard to base ALL of your health decisions off of research alone. It takes years for research to catch up and "prove" what many of our clinical experiences have taught us to be true. As time goes on, we are continually being asked to expand our perspective and I couldn't be happier that western science continues to examine the gut-brain axis as a contributing factor in both health and disease. Evident in that this past July 2016, Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology Journal published an article by the same author, Micheal D. Gershon, entitled: The bowel and beyond: the enteric nervous system in neurological disorders.
Those 2 reads I gave you above are pretty heavy in scientific jargon, so I really can't think of a better person to weave your understanding of stress, digestion, and the microbiome together than Claire, who works as a holistic, plant-based chef, yoga instructor, personal wellness coach, and inner-wisdom guide. You can catch Claire of Vidya Living online at her upcoming Fall Equinox, community cleanse (September 25-October 8, 2016) or in person for a seasonal renewal at our Ayurveda, Alignment, + Yoga Retreat (October 6-9, 2016). Until then, let Claire take you on a journey of deepening your digestive function wisdom and we highly suggest you take her 5 tips to better support your gut health to heart. xo Amanda
I spend a lot of time thinking about food - the energetics of food, the many different ways of preparing it and the beauty of a good meal shared. I also spend a lot of time thinking about digestion. In Ayurveda, there’s a saying that goes, “You are what you digest.” How we assimilate and eliminate matters just as much as the qualities of foods we select and prepare. And how we choose to take in our food – whether we’re eating when stressed or at ease - affects the balance of our microbiome, vitality and overall gastrointestinal (GI) function. Because we live in a fast-paced and often stressful world, here are few fascinating tidbits I’ve been learning about the nervous system, stress and digestion.
First thing to know, the entire GI system is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Related to the ANS, the enteric nervous system (ENS), or “small brain,” controls the movement and secretions in the GI system. Digestion needs its own semi-independent “computer” because its functions are so complex and assimilation is critical for survival. This independent functioning is essential if there is a problem elsewhere in the nervous system. The process of digestion as a whole is essentially a restorative, regenerative function activated by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
When we are stressed, our bodies live in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), flight or flight mode. Since digestion functions best when our bodies are operating in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), it is crucial to eat when our bodies are at rest rather than stress. The process of digestion alone requires an enormous amount of energy. When the body is stressed and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is turned on, the resting state of digestion simply cannot complete its full functions, leaving us with indigestion, bloating, and fluctuating elimination experiences.
The organs of digestion are lined with smooth muscle, which is responsible for the rhythmic, wave-like motion called peristalsis that works to move food and waste products through the system. Stress contracts these muscles and makes it harder for the peristalsis to maintain it’s normal rhythmic movement. If stress increases the movements, it can cause diarrhea. If it inhibits the movements, it can cause constipation. To explain this further - a function of the large intestine is to reabsorb water from the processed food passing through it, but with the rapid movement there is less opportunity to absorb water and diarrhea may result. In "The Complete Book To Ayurvedic Home Remedies" by Vasant Lad, it is explained that from an Ayurvedic perspective, diarrhea occurs when the digestive fire is weakened, usually by excess pitta. On the opposite spectrum, if the contractions are not rhythmic, decreased motility allows more time for water reabsorption, which results in dry constipation. Banyan Botanicals explains, "According to Ayurveda, constipation occurs when vata’s cold and dry qualities disturb the colon, inhibiting its proper functioning." Furthermore, stress chemicals disrupt the normal integrity of the stomach mucosa and influences the harmony of healthy bacteria in the gut- our microbiome (you can read more on the beautiful balance of the microbiome and its vital importance to our health in Amanda + Jenn's 3-part article series here!).
Even more fascinating is how interconnected our emotional experiences and digestive health are. There is a physiological link between stress, emotional reactions and the intestinal tract. The lining of the bowel is rich in neuropeptide receptors. These receptors form a bridge and communication links between the emotional centers of the brain and the digestive system. When these emotional centers are activated, the mucous secretion in the bowel is reduced and in turn reduces the ability to eliminate. From an Ayurvedic perspective, a build of up toxins (ama) in the body and in the mind, is directly related to the bowels ability to release and eliminate. Simply put, it’s crucial we care for our gut health each day.
So what can we do to better support our digestion?
- Never eat when stressed. If you have the tendency to eat when you’re upset as a means of comfort, see how you can nourish yourself in other loving ways.
- Create a quiet environment for yourself during meals, turn off any electronics and external stimulation. Step away from answering emails and save any heated conversations for another time. Let the simple act of eating be an event in itself.
- Before you take your first bite, put both feet on the ground and take a few deep breaths. This act of slowing down the breath will shift your body into the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), preparing your body to take in food more effectively.
- Eat slowly, chew each bite until it becomes a liquid in the mouth, and savor the sensual experience of the food you’re taking in.
- Stay relaxed after your meal and give yourself 30 minutes to fully digest before shifting to a more active pace.
We’ll be exploring more of the functional movement and self-care practices for digestion at the upcoming IWR Malibu Retreat during our morning workshop sessions. Looking forward to seeing everyone on the beach for mindful eating, movement and meditation soon!
For those needing a visual on how the nervous system is organized, Check out Figure 1 from the research article Amanda cited above.