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The Maker’s Diet
Life and Death in a Long Hollow tube:
The Importance of the GI Tract
Americans seem to accept poor health as a normal consequence of aging, while many experiences poor health while still young. Meanwhile, researchers continue to gather evidence affirming the importance of the gut to overall health.
More and more health professionals believe there is life and death in the long hollow tube called the “gastrointestinal tract.” Dr. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. Surgeon General, indicated two out of three Americans suffer fatal health problems because of poor dietary choices. That means their problems are centered in their “gut”.
What we eat may affect our risk for several of the leading causes of death for Americans, notably, coronary heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and some types of cancer. These disorders together now account for more than two-thirds of all deaths in the United States.
Side Effects of Aspirin
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As Americans, we have neglected gastrointestinal health for too long. Most nations and civilizations seen to understand what we have forgotten long ago regarding the critical role of digestive health.
…Several factors linked to modern civilization threaten your internal health, including unsafe vaccinations, environmental toxins, pollutants, the overuse of antibiotics (all the foods they contaminate), and even chlorinated and fluoridated water. Add to the list the burgeoning consumption of alcohol and drugs (prescription and recreation) plus poor diets, and you have only a few of the modern-day enemies endangering your gastrointestinal health!
While it is true that the brain is the centerpiece of our mental capacity and nervous systems, it is also a fact that there are nearly one hundred million nerve cells in the gut alone –about the same number found in the spinal cord!
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Fully one-half of your nerve cells are located in the gut, so your capacity for feeling and for emotional expression depends primarily on the gut (and only to a lesser extent on your brain). By the time you add together the number of nerve cells in the esophagus, stomach, and small and large intestines, there are more nerve cells in the overall digestive system than there are in the peripheral nervous system.
Most people would say the brain determines whether you are happy or sad, but they have their facts skewed. It seems the gut is more responsible than we every imagined for mental well-being and how we feel.
You Have Two Brains
Award-winning science writer Sandra Blakeslee specializes in “cognitive neuroscience”. She captured the link between our gut and brain, perfectly in this quote, from one of her numerous New York Times articles:
Have you ever wondered why people get butterflies in the stomach before going on stage? Or why an impeding ob interview can cause an attack of intestinal cramps? And why do antidepressants targeted for the brain cause nausea or abdominal upset in millions of people who take such drugs? The reason for these common experiences is because each of us literally has two brains – the familiar one encased in our skulls and the lesser-known but vitally important one found in the human gut. …the two brains are interconnected; when one gets upset, the other does, too”.
This “second brain” in the gut is called the “enteric nervous system” (ENS) This “intestinal nervous system” consists of neurons, neurotransmitters, and messenger proteins embedded in the layer or coverings of tissue that line the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon. (The word enteric is a Greek term for “intestine”.)
The enteric nervous system possesses a complex neural circuitry, and this “second brain” in your gut can act independently from, the first brain in your body. Literally, it learns from experiences, remembers past actions and events, and produces an entire range of “gut feelings” that can influence your actions.
Two Nervous Systems form during Fetal Development
Early in our embryogenesis, a collection of tissue called the “neural crest” appears and divides during fetal development. One part turns into the central nervous system and the other migrates to become the enteric nervous system. Both “Thinking machines” form simultaneously and independently of one another until a later stage of development.
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Then the two nervous systems link though a neural cable called the “vagus nerve,” the longest of all cranial nerves. (Its name comes from a Latin root meaning “wandering”) The vagus nerve “wanders” from the brain stem through organs in the neck and thorax and finally terminates in the abdomen. This is your vital brain-gut connection.
Gastro-neuro-immunology describes the profound influence and importance of this link between our two brains and its affect on human immune function.
Never Underestimate Your Second Brain
The mass of gray matter between your ears is immensely important to your well-being, but you should never discount the vital importance of your “second brain” – the gut.
Dr. Michael Gershon, professor of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, described the body’s second nervous system in his book The second Brain:
Around 1899 two English physiologists at University College in London first discovered and described the interaction of hormones at the command of neural cells (ganglion) in the digestive tract. William M. Bayliss and Ernest H. Starling anesthetized dogs and applied pressure to the interior cavity of the intestine. The pressure caused contraction and relaxation followed by a propulsive wave. This propulsive wave or “peristaltic reflex” came to be called the “law of the intestine.” It describes the way the intestine propels food through the digestive tract.
Experimental studies demonstrated that “the law of the intestine” operated and digestion continued even when all nerves connecting the bowel to the brain and spinal cord were severed. This convinced the scientists that the enteric nervous system (ENS) was independent from the central nervous system.
A German scientist named Paul Trendelenburg confirmed the work of Bayliss and Starling eighteen years later, but the scientific community quickly refocused its interest on the more “exciting” discoveries of the day: chemical neurotransmitters such as epinephrine and actylcholine.
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Scientists Forgot the Second Brain for 100 Years
After a political conflict within the scientific community, disgruntled scientists at the Physiological Society arbitrarily reclassified the enteric nerves as simply part of the “parasympathetic nervous system” and essentially wrote off the discovery of this “second brain” for more than a century.
Interest in the ENS revived between 1965 and 1967 when Dr. Michael Gershon proposed the existence of a third neurotransmitter, serotonin (6-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT) that was both produced in and targeted to the enteric nervous system. Dr. Gershon’s proposition was confirmed, and we now know that this neurotransmitter is also found in the central nervous system Serotonin make you feel good. It is crucial for emotional health and balance, and it directly affects the well-being and function of your digestive system.
We are still discovering ways the enteric nervous system mirrors the central nervous system. Nearly every substance that helps run and control the brain has turned up in the gut! Major neurotransmitters associated with the brain- including serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, nor epinephrine, and nitric oxide- are found in plentiful amounts in the gut as well.
The Gut Manufactures Opiates and Mood-Controllers
About twenty-four small brain proteins called “neuropeptides” also appear in relatively high amounts in the gut, as well as major cells of the immune system. Researchers have even found plentiful amounts of enkephalins in the gut-a class of natural opiates in the body. The gut is also a rich source of benzodiazepines-psychoactive chemicals that include such popular mood-controlling drugs marketed as Valium and Xanax.
Karl Lashley, whom many consider the founder of neuropsychology, said in 1951. “I am coming more and more to the conviction that the rudiments of every human behavioral mechanism will be found represented even in primitive activities of the nervous system. This link between the brain and the gut is helping researchers understand why people act and fell the way they do.
Importance of Sleep
Sleep disturbances set up vicious cycles of pain, fatigue, and emotional distress that make sleep even more unlikely. Things don’t improve much during waking hours either for people who do not sleep well. In adequate sleep increases sensitivity to bowel, skin, and muscle stimuli, thus leading to more pain and distress. When you don’t get enough sleep, the divestiture system suffers as a result.
The brain and gut are much alike. Both have natural ninety-minute cycles. The slow wave sleep of the brain is interrupted by periods of “rapid eye movement,” or REM sleep, in which dreams occur. Patients with bowel problems also tend to have abnormal REM sleep, and poor sleep has been reported by many if not most patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and nonulcer dyspepsia (“sour stomach”)
Doctors often treat abnormal REM sleep with mild antidepressant, which may also be effective in treating IBS and nonulcer dyspepsia. However, some stronger antidepressants make digestive problems worse. Once again this points to a link between sleeping problems and stomach problems. Do the two brains influence each other? Probably.
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Sleep may very well be the single most important ingredient for digestive health. And it is important to get enough sleep at the right time. Some researchers believe that every minute you sleep before midnight is the equivalent of four minutes of sleep after midnight. Restful sleep will do wonders for your digestion and overall health.
Things Go Wrong When Serotonin
Is Robbed from the Gut
Many prescription drugs that affect the brain also affect the gut. Some individuals who take Prozac or similar antidepressants may experience gastrointestinal problems such as nausea, diarrhea, and constipation. These drugs “divert” serotonin from the body to the brain. Unfortunately, this leaves less serotonin for the cells of the gastrointestinal tract.
Normally, the gut produces more serotonin than any other part of the body. This is important because serotonin is liked with initiation of peristalsis (the rhythmic movement of food through the digestive tract). When that supply of serotonin is reduced or stopped altogether, everything related to food digestion goes wrong.
Small doses of Prozac are often used to treat chronic constipation. However, if a little Prozac cures constipation, a lot of Prozac causes it!
Opiates also have powerful effect on the digestive tract because the gut has opiate receptors much like the brain. Dr. Michael Loes, a pain management specialist and author of The Healing Response, wrote, “Not surprisingly, drugs like morphine and heroin that are thought to act on the central nervous system also attach to the gut’s opiate receptors, producing constipation. Both brains can be addicted to opiates.” Many Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease patients suffer from constipation because these conditions impact the “second” brain in the gut as well as the “first” brain and central nervous system.
Anxious? Follow Your Gut Feeling
Fortunately, the Creator equipped the human gut with its own ways of coping with pain and stress. As I mentioned, the gut produces benzodiazepines, the same pain-alleviating chemicals found in antianxiety drugs such as Valium. It seems the gut is equipped to be your body’s anxiety and pain reliever!
If you overeat because you feel anxious, your body may be trying to use the extra food to produce more benzodiazepines. We are not sure whether the gut synthesizes benzodiazepine from chemical in our foods, from bacterial actions, or from both. We do know that extreme pain appears to put the gut into overdrive in order to send benzodiazepine directly to the brain for immediate pain management.
Evidently, if you take care of your gut, it will take care of you. But what happens if you do not take care of your gut? Consider again what Dr. C. Everett Koops said in The surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health in 1988:
Food sustains us, it can be a source of considerable pleasure, it is a reflection of our rich social fabric and cultural heritage, it adds value dimension to our lives. Yet what we eat may affect our risk of several of the leading causes of death for Americans, notable, coronary heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and some types of cancer.
These disorders together now accunt for more than two-thirds of all deaths in the United States.
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