Listening to the gut - how your digestive system works and why you should listen
We’ve all heard the saying “listen to your gut” and many of us have learned that this is a far more credible and reliable source of information than most out there - call it your intuition or an inner knowing, those gut feelings are guardian angels and they are real.
Our Gastrointestinal tracts are fascinating and incredibly important parts of our beings, containing its own control centre (the Enteric nervous system) and regulating networks throughout the body and mind - impacting not only our digestion but the way we feel and move through life too.
Here are some fascinating facts about your gut:
- Mood and satiety are regulated by neurotransmitters, chemicals which are produced and located in the gut by around 100 million neurons
- 70-80% of all the immune cells in the body are concentrated in the gut
- 95% of serotonin is found in the gut
- The gut is home to around 100 trillion bacteria which produce metabolites that are imperative to maintain good health.
So lets dive into this sacred and special second brain of ours and all of its mechanics:
What is the digestive system?
The digestive system is a complex collection of organs all uniquely set up to process the foods which we consume into the vital nutrients, minerals, vitamins and energy we need to thrive in our daily lives. It is made of the Gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), the liver, pancreas and gallbladder. The GI tract is made of a series of hollow organs which connect seamlessly from one to another ; in order of the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus. Once all the nutrients have been extracted from the beautiful nourishment you have gifted yourself this results in regular and healthy bowel movements (bm).
Digestion and healthy digestion is the means through which repair and vitality is restored and given to the entire being.
We are what we eat...
as the saying goes and for that reason consuming healthy, beautifully nourishing foods of all food groups that are accessible and that work for your individual and unique needs is imperative - having balance and ensuring that your food is your medicine as old Hippocrates says, medicine for your body, mind and spirit (yes that means having a treat in moderation too - that’s the love food)
Starting with the mouth:
Did you know that your digestion starts before you even take a taster of your meal?
Salivary glands activate when we see or smell that beautiful scent of a warm bread, pasta dish or roasted vegetables. Once we start eating the act of chewing breaks the food down into pieces which your saliva mixes with, allowing for it to be more easily broken down and absorbed. When you swallow the tongue passes food into the throat which then travels into the Oesophagus.
The Oesophagus :
Located in the throat near your trachea (windpipe), this shaft receives food from the mouth. The epiglottis is a small flap that folds over the windpipe when you swallow to prevent choking - food going down the wrong pipe (sound familiar). It is here that a series of muscular contractions called peristalsis takes place and allows for food to be delivered to the stomach. Before this takes place, a small ring shaped muscle at the bottom of the oesophagus called the lower oesophageal sphincter has to relax in order to allow for food to enter - this muscle contracts and prevents whatever is in the stomach from going back into the oesophagus (when it doesn’t this can be the cause for acid reflux and heartburn).
The Small Intestine:
The small intestine is a muscular tube which is an average 22 feet long and consists of three segments including the duodenum, jejunum and the ileum.
Food is further broken down through enzymes released by the pancreas and bile from the liver, it is then moved through peristalsis, mixing and moving food and all the digestive juices along. The duodenum is the first segment and is responsible for the continued breaking down process, the jejunum and ileum are then responsible for absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream. Through the small intestine food is transformed from a semi-solid state and ends in a liquid form after passing through the organ all thanks to water, bile, enzymes and mucous.
This special gland and organ secretes digestive enzymes into the duodenum which breaks down all proteins, fats and carbohydrates. It is also the organ we have to thank for making insulin, passing it directly into the bloodstream and allowing for the metabolisation of sugars.
The lovely liver has many, many functions, however within the digestive system its main mission within the digestive system is to aid in processing the nutrients absorbed from the small intestine and allow for the secretion of bile into the small intestine to digest fats and certain vitamins. Think of your liver as the manufacturing site for all your body’s chemicals - it takes all the ‘raw materials’ absorbed by the intestines and creates all the chemicals your body needs to function. It additionally detoxifies harmful chemicals, breaks down any toxins and secretes any and all harmful substances from your beautiful being.
Stores and concentrates bile from the liver and releases it into the duodenum (small intestine) to aid in absorbing and digesting fats.
The colon aids the body in processing all the waste product which has been left over once the break down of nutrients, vitamins and minerals has taken place. It is a 6-foot long muscular tube which connects the small intestine and the rectum and is made from the cecum (the right/ ascending colon), the transverse (across) colon, the descending (left) colon and the sigmoid colon which connects to the rectum. Stool is moved through peristalsis first in a liquid state, however the colon removes all water and therefore allows for a solid form to be generated.
The good bacteria which allows for this process to happen ease-fully and fluidly are incredibly able to facilitate synthesising vitamins, protecting the body against harmful bacteria, processing waste and many other functions (see microbiome blog here).
This is a straight 8-inch chamber which connects the colon and the anus - it receives the stool and says “hey its time to go drop the kids off that the pool” - communicating that its time to go to the loo. When gas or stool comes into the rectum it fires off messages to the brain, through which an understanding is formed of ‘can this be released or not’. If it can the sphincters relax, rectum contracts and your BM takes place.
The last and final part of the digestive process - it is 2 inches long and this canal consists of the pelvic floor muscles and two anal sphincters (internal and external), an incredible ability of the upper lining of the anus is in its ability to detect and communicate whether the contents are liquid, gas or solid - the sphincter and pelvic floor muscles then allow to stool to be passed or not.
Now that we know the mechanics and for sure giggled a few times at reading the words rectum and anus more than a few times -
What is there to listen to?
Why are gut feelings guardian angels?
A Stanford psychologist found in a side by side comparison that intuitive, gut centric decision making led to superior choices 68% of the time compared with a 26% success rate with more detail orientated strategies - showing that more often than not the intuitive answer is often correct.
The feedback loop and communication cycle between the gut and the brain is both a physical and psychological cue - both being imperative for ensuring optimal health.
The connection is simple and easy to understand as The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute states, researchers there are investigating what implications the connection between the gut microbiome, the ENS, the central nervous system (CNS) have for our mood, cognition and behavioural patterns. Other Harvard studies are exploring whether body image issues and disordered eating patters are related to GI problems and professors have even explored how achieving a state of relaxation can aid in relieving inflammatory bowel disease, IBS and other digestive ailments.
With an increasing estimation of people experiencing functional bowel issues in their lives, Hopkins researchers have found that people with IBS and other functional bowel issues are disproportionately more likely to experience depression and anxiety in their lives.
So it’s quite simple to see why the ancients have all prioritised digestion - from Ayurveda to Tibetan, Egyptian, African and Traditional Chinese Medicine practices diet has always been believed as an essential form of preventative medicine to ensure that the state of health and wellbeing is kept vital.
You have a mind brain and a gut brain and the one communicates to the other whether you are conscious of the transference of messages or whether it is something you still need to tune into, here are two easy identifications of the ways in which this dialogue takes place:
- You feel afraid : Here digestion can either pick up or slow right down - resulting in stomach pains, diarrhoea and cramping. For example if there is a big meeting or presentation coming up, you may experience a sudden urge to run to the bathroom or alternatively you may lack a BM for a day or two prior to the event
- Danger : Being faced with a perceived or real danger will have set in the fight-flight-freeze response which is triggered within the CNS, in response the ENS slows down and stops digestion from continuing in an attempt to direct more energy to the source of threat to allow for safety to be found. This can be seen in the ‘lack’ and ‘scarcity’ mentality we are faced with, the impending deadlines and stress which can feel like shackles - this feeling of danger shuts down the biological mechanisms from taking place to attempt to return to a sense of safety - this is however not always possible and therefore chronic constipation is something which is being seen more and more in our lives - the answer is the affirmation of safety and seeking healthy coping mechanisms to support this.
Now that you can understand and hopefully have had some light shed on the wonder that is this subconscious and subtle (or maybe not to subtle) communication taking place perhaps take some time to soften into this space and allow for the belly to truly relax and release the tension which we so often store there.
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I trust this brings you great love and inspiration at your beautiful body, and perhaps inspire you to nourish that beautiful belly that much more
SENDING YOU BLESSINGS OF RADIANT WELLBEING
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