Core Love: Stress, Immunity and the ‘Second Brain’ in Your Gut
Scientists are now calling the network of neurons lining the gut the ‘second brain’, more properly known as the enteric nervous system.
This ‘second brain’ in our bellies goes far beyond just processing the food we eat. As many as 100 million neurons embedded in the walls of our digestive tract manage the complex and messy business of breaking down food, absorbing nutrients and expelling waste, as well as the rhythmic muscle contractions that move everything down the line.
The ENS and our Mood
Aside from the digestive process, the enteric nervous system in the gut partly determines our mood. 90% of the fibres from the main nerve in the abdomen, the vagus, carry information from gut to brain. The gut-brain connection is a two-way street, with most of the information travelling from the gut to the brain and not the other way round. So if you experience gripping or tightness in your tummy, chances are, your belly is telling your brain to prepare for fight or flight. It is through this network of neurons that we feel ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, a common physiological response to stress. Our emotional well-being relies in part on these messages the belly sends to the brain. In fact, over 90% of the body’s serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter which regulates mood, is found in the gut.
In addition to emotional benefits, the latest research suggests that at least 70% of our immune system is in the gut, the trillions of bacteria that destroy and expel harmful invaders. This is why it is important to maintain the flora which lines the gut. Our intestinal flora suffers as a result of stress, processed food, sugar, alcohol, antibiotics, tap water etc. Research also indicates that restoring the gut flora is a significant help to those struggling to lose weight.
How stress affects the gut
Interestingly, learning to relax and manage stress effectively can result in a more lean mid-section. Gaining weight around your tummy is specifically linked to the stress hormone, cortisol, released when the brain feels under threat. Along with adrenaline, cortisol provides a quick burst of energy allowing you to react to the perceived danger. These days, many of us live in continuous fight or flight mode. The problem is that we don’t often get to fight or flee in response to stress, which would provide a natural release for the excess energy. Unless you do something physical with all that energy, in the form of fat and glucose, your body re-deposits it as fat around the middle. This fat around the middle has been linked with heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high blood pressure.
So how can we best take care of this vital system that digests our food, boosts mood, improves immunity and helps us maintain a healthy weight? A wholesome diet, physical exercise, rest and relaxation. Simples.
Core & Restore Workshop
At our Core & Restore Workshop you will practise intelligent core work, respecting as well as strengthening the muscles which wrap around the digestive system. In the latter half of the workshop, you will experience the deep release of restorative yoga poses which help us to let go of the gripping sensations we experience in the belly as a result of stress. Restorative yoga triggers the Relaxation Response, soothing the nervous system and allowing you to rest deeply. We will also send some loving kindness to our bellies, adapted from the mindfulness meditation tradition: ‘May I digest well. May I feel ease in my tummy. May I accept my tummy as it is.’ ☺
Paula Flood is teaching her Core and Restore workshop on Sunday, June 4th at 12:30 if you can’t make it along enjoy the core wisdom she shared above to keep you going.