Article by Dana Stewart

We have all felt physiological reactions to stress and trauma, but did you know that these physiological responses are also greatly impacted by our gut and what we eat? In November, Andrea and I attended a training called “The Gut-Brain Connection: Facts, Fads, & Fallacies”. This is an area that I have had interest and excitement in for a number of years now. Part of my interest in being a part of Cardinal Psychotherapy was the shared interest all of us have in this area of mind-body connection. It can be tempting for people to shy away from the topic because it can be so overwhelming. Never hesitate to bring up the topic of nutrition, stress, or mind/body health in your therapy sessions because it is both important and relevant!

While I would love to share all of the information learned from this training, it is impossible in such a small space. Instead I will share some of my favorite takeaways from the day. 

The Role of Vagus Nerve

Have you heard of the Vagus Nerve? Many people haven’t, despite the fact that it plays a huge role in your health and wellbeing. The vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves that connects your brain to the rest of your body. It runs from the brain, through the face and thorax, into the abdomen, thereby hardwiring the gut and the brain and allowing them to send signals back and forth. One of the important functions of the vagus nerve is to help regulate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system (the calming system in our body). When our parasympathetic nervous system is activated, we have responses such as better bowel motility, a stronger immune system, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and a calmer mood. When your vagus nerve is stimulated in the right ways, it not only helps with digestion, but it also helps to improve your mood. One way to stimulate your vagus nerve is through slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing–breathing from your diaphragm, rather than shallowly from the top of the lungs stimulates and tones the vagus nerve. If you need help learning how to breathe from your diaphragm, let one of us know and we will happily take you through some breathing exercises.

Creating a Healthy Gut Biome

Did you know that the gut is home to 100 trillian microorganisms! This is 10 times greater than the number of cells in our entire body, which means that microbes in your gut are a more accurate identifier than your DNA! One of the key functions of the microbes in your gut is the development, function, and health of the brain. Neurotransmitters (the feel good chemicals in the brain) such as GABA and Serotonin are localized in the “gut brain” and reach our “big brain” through the vagus nerve. In fact, more than 95% of the Serotonin in our body is found in the gut, which is important for sleep, mood, appetite, and digestive functions. Therefore, maintaining a healthy gut is imperative for maintaining a healthy brain. Research is telling us that “the gut is the theater in which the drama of emotions plays out.” 

Historically, the view point was one of separation of the brain and body. That belief system is drastically changing and there is plenty of research to prove the connection and how the function of our gut and brain works together and impacts a whole host of systems in the body. So the important take is this—not only does emotional stress impact what is happening in our gut but what we put into our gut directly affects the functioning of our brain. 

All of us at Cardinal believe in and value a holistic model of care. We all believe that what we put in our bodies and how we regulate stress greatly impacts our mental and emotional health. We see the benefit in incorporating this topic into our discussions in order to better serve you.  Additionally, we help you to find other holistic practitioners that can aid you in your efforts for better mind-body health. We look forward to further assisting you on your path to wellness!