Miss Michael CNM and I have a strong draw towards functional medicine. Neither of us are yet formally trained, but we dive into any and all literature about the discipline we can locate. Our nutritionist, Megan Barnes, is currently in a graduate program that combines nutrition and functional medicine. She is brilliant and generously shares her passion with the clinical staff. It is not lost on any one of us that the health of one’s gut is vital to overall health, most especially mental health.
Not too long ago I read a study that discussed the gut as a second brain. My son and I have also had long conversations about this, as he is fascinated with the mind and the vast majority of his high school studies have surrounded the biological nature of the human brain and nutrition. What about gut instincts?
Today I have stumbled upon an article by Christopher Bergland, thanks to Cheri Goble, a Webster-certified chiropractor in Lafayette. She graciously shared a journal with me where I found the article, “Gut Instincts: Neuroscientists have Identified how the Vagus Nerve Communicates with the Brain.” There were many points that resinated with me, so I thought I’d share because we do see a fairly high number of clients with anxiety, depression, and irritable bowel.
When I was a young nurse, I worked in a high-acuity hospital with a diverse clientele. Life or death hung on the edge of every shift and although in many ways, those days inspired me, working with residents who were demanding and cruel and even worse, suffering the abuse extended by more experienced nurses was more than my vulnerable soul could bear. My irritable bowel became so intense that I would black out while at work and was extended medical leave.
It is no exaggeration to say that the face of a certain physician or nurse could cause me to pause mid-assessment, blood pressure cuff still attached to the patient, so I could sprint to the restroom in hopes of avoiding major calamity. I know you did not ask for such horrifyingly personal stories about your midwife, but I am here to tell ya, I share because I know I am not alone. Many clients have shared similar stories. In fact, while the job of a midwife is beautiful beyond description, it can also be horrifyingly stressful. Many excellent midwives have crumbled under the pressure and my best nurses have sacrificed their mental health in effort to soldier on when they are needed.
Are there people, places or situations that make you anxious? Christopher Bergland calls this a “fear-conditioned” response and apparently scientists in Switzerland have recently identified how this vagus nerve conveys threatening “gut feelings” to the brain. The vagus nerve is quite interesting in that it meanders down your body from your cerebellum and brain stem to your abdomen, touching most major organs along the way. The Jounal of Neuroscience reports on another study that identifies how “gut instincts” travel to the brain via the vagus nerve and are linked to various responses to fear.
The vagus nerve is constantly sending messages to the brain. The vast majority, between 80 and 90 percent of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve, are dedicated simply to communicating the state of your viscera to your brain.
“Visceral feelings and gut instincts are literally emotional intuitions transferred up to your brain via the vagus nerve,” states Christopher Bergland.
A close friend of mine suffers from a plethora of food allergies. This person also suffers with anxiety. We have talked recently about how anxiety is often the reflection of inflammation in one’s body, and therefore, her anxiety may be a direct cause of her diet. How unfortunate for her! Admittedly, my husband has suffered his entire life with severe anxiety, as has all the men on his father’s side. I don’t doubt there is a genetic link, and his neurotransmitter test results were among the worst I have ever seen. There is a physiologic basis to anxiety that pharmaceuticals can not band-aid.
Healthy vagus nerve communication between your gut and your brain uses neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and GABA like the brakes on your car. These neurotransmitters literally lower heart rate and blood pressure, and help your organs slow down so that youcan rest and digest. The question by scientists is then, can we disconnect the return messages from the gut to the brain so as to avoid anxiety and depression?
In one experiment in which the vagus nerve of rats were somehow “not fully functioning,” it was found that they were less afraid of open spaces and bright lights compared to those with intact nerves. Interestingly though, while they demonstrated a lower level of innate fear, they had a longer retention of learned fear. This seems to indicate that the vagus nerve is necessary to unlearn a conditioned response of fear. This also allows scientists to conclude that an innate response to ear appears to be influenced significantly by “gut instinct” signals sent from the stomach to the brain confirming the importance of healthy vagal tone to maintain grace under pressure and to overcome fear conditioning.
Choose your foods wisely. Easier said than done, I know. I teach this daily and better than anyone, I respect the great impact each decision we make about food has on our health, but I also struggle to apply it in my life. For this reason, I have scheduled an appointment with our new health coach, Crystal Lawburgh. It is time to shed the weight I have accumulated due to the stress of independently managing a homebirth midwifery practice.
While foods are our building blocks, we genuinely can alter our health through healthy thoughts and positive self-talk. Our parasympathetic nervous system balances our sympathetic nervous system. We can calm ourselves through verbal direction or by engaging our vagus nerve through deep breathing techniques. We can also effect our neurotransmitter responses via the vagus nerve, improving recovery and decreasing post-traumatic stress disorder. The stomach plays a role in how we respond to stress.
Visit your chiropractor if you are anxious or suffer any emotional health issue. Pressure on the vagus nerve may be to cause. Improving blood flow to any and all organs is always of benefit to one’s health. Dr. Vicki Danis sees clients in our Carmel office every Wednesday. Our entire staff “pop” in her office each week.