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Can your brain help you poop better?
In the past, I used to get really anxious before public speaking and felt like I had to poop multiple times. Thankfully it never happened while speaking. Why are we talking about poop right now?
We’re discussing the brain-gut connection and how anxiety influences our digestive system. The research community refers to this link as the brain-gut axis. If you identify problems within this axis, then you can make choices to improve your digestive function.
How could anxiety negatively affect the digestive system?
Let’s dive into the science for a moment. Anxiety and stress initiate a response by the hypothalamus in the brain to produce the neurotransmitter, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). The release of ACTH instructs the adrenal glands above the kidneys to produce cortisol.
As you may recall, cortisol is the “stress hormone.” An increase in cortisol would increase blood pressure, increase blood sugar, and slow down the digestive system. While stressed, blood flow is redirected towards skeletal muscles to prepare the body for the fight or flight response.
During the fight or flight response, the body needs to conserve its energy for survival so digestion slows down and the vagus nerve is not very active.
Why is the vagus nerve important?
The vagus nerve connects the brain to the gut. The vagus nerve is one of the main components of the parasympathetic nervous system which controls mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. It originates in the brain stem and travels down the neck to the chest and down to the abdomen where it connects to the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine.
What are the benefits of stimulating the vagus nerve?
If you activate the vagus nerve then your body will enter a state of “rest and digest”- the opposite of the “fight or flight” response of the autonomic nervous system. The “rest and digest” state of your body will promote better digestive function.
Vagus nerve stimulation also appears to reduce inflammation. Inflammation of the gut is involved with conditions like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), Crohn’s disease, and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). These diseases affect more than 1.5 million people in the United States and there are likely many more people with undiagnosed conditions. A gut with less inflammation is also vital for immune system function.
A 2011 study showed that rats with inflammation in their colon had reduced inflammatory markers and reduced symptoms after 3-hours of vagus nerve stimulation each day for 5-days. Researchers are optimistic that vagus nerve stimulation can be a treatment for inflammatory bowel diseases since the vagus nerve helps promote a better inflammation response in the gut.
Valgus nerve stimulation can also help with other inflammatory diseases. Another 2016 study showed that patients with rheumatoid arthritis had fewer symptoms after 1-4 minutes of vagus nerve stimulation daily.
A 2008 study in Europe showed that patients with treatment-resistant depression had a positive effect on depressive symptoms after vagus nerve stimulation. Researchers are optimistic that vagus nerve stimulation can be a powerful treatment for people with anxiety-related disorders like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
What are the benefits of stimulating the vagus nerve?
Exercise – It may seem contrary to exercise since the vagus nerve is mostly activated in a calm state, but there are different types of exercise to improve vagus nerve function. Gentle stretching, cardio, yoga, Pilates, and other exercises that produce a calming effect can be beneficial. Strength training can produce benefits due to the positive influence on the neurological system and gut motility (movement of the intestines).
Breathing – Focus on controlling the depth and rate of your breathing. Shallow breaths aren’t the best for increasing oxygen to the brain. In addition, shallow breaths mimic the breaths taken in an anxious state. Instead, take slower deeper breaths by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth with the lips together.
Meditation or prayer – Download a meditation app to assist you with guided meditation and incorporate your breathwork into your sessions. Meditation can help to bring mindfulness to your body, lower stress levels, and improve your cognitive function. Prayer can bring similar benefits as meditation in addition to the benefits of spiritual fulfillment. A 2014 study of patients with cancer showed that prayer reduced anxiety states, blood pressure, and respiratory rate.
Mindfulness – The practice of mindfulness may include breathing, meditation, and prayer as mentioned above, but it deserves a category of its own. According to the Mayo Clinic, “mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.”
It will be challenging to overcome gut problems without addressing the psychological and neurological issues hindering a healthy digestive system. Stimulating the vagus nerve using the techniques above may promote better digestion for you.
In addition, inflammation in the gut is one of the primary biological pathways that wreaks havoc on the body. You may want to read our article about the benefits of turmeric extract for gut inflammation since high-dose curcumin is also a promising intervention for digestive problems.
About the author: Marc Robinson is a Licensed Physical Therapist in San Diego, CA. He started the companies, Evercore Injury Recovery and Active Atoms to help people rehab from injuries and accelerate their athletic potential. Dr. Marc focuses on empowering each person to overcome their personal battles and enjoy their optimal life with their family.