by Jennifer Wolkin | Apr 22, 2016 | Brain Health, Mindfulness, Wellness
This blog post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
Less might sometimes be more, but two brains are most definitely better than one! How extraordinary then that research continues to confirm a second brain that resides in our guts.
Yes, our gut has its own neural network, the enteric nervous system (ENS). Our ENS doesn’t wax philosophical or make executive decisions like the gray shiny mound in our skulls. Yet, in a miraculously orchestrated symphony of hormones, neurotransmitters, and electrical impulses, both of our “brains” communicate back and forth.
This connection is actually what accounts for those proverbial butterflies in our stomach and has vast implications on our overall health and wellness. Changes in the diversity of the trillions of bacteria that reside in our gut (called the gut microbiota) can impact upon our mental state. And on the flip side, psycho-social factors, including the way we think and feel, have been implicated in gut problems.
Given my personal experience with SIBO, and professional experience with hundreds of women suffering from depression, anxiety, and GI difficulties, I enjoy teaching about how to live what I like to call a “Two-Brain Lifestyle.”
Here are four ways to begin your two-brain lifestyle journey:
“Diet is a central issue when it comes to preserving our gastrointestinal health, because by eating and digesting we literally feed our gut microbiota, and thus influence its diversity and composition.” –– Professor Francisco Guarner (University Hospital Valld’Hebron, Barcelona, Spain)
There is more and more research linking diets to both our gut and brain health. Certain diets elicit a healthier bacterial balance. Overall, and generally speaking, a diet rich in whole, unprocessed, unadulterated, and non-genetically modified foods help to maintain a proper pathogenic gut bacteria ratio. More specifically, the following are key recommendations:
A. Probiotic Intake:
Probiotics can be found in foods such as yogurt, or kimchi, and can also be taken in supplement form. Among other benefits, probiotics keep the bacterial ecosystem in our gut healthy, which in turn helps keep us healthy overall.
The positive impact of probiotics on gut flora has been widely studied in the last few years. In a 2013 study in Gastroenterology, 12 of 25 healthy women ate a cup of yogurt twice a day for four weeks. The rest of the women ingested no yogurt. All women had pre and post brain scans while being asked to respond to a series of images depicting different facial expressions. Results indicated that the women who ate yogurt were calmer when shown various emotions than the control group. Showing that the yogurt changed the subjects’ gut microbiota, which also modified their brain chemistry.
This means probiotics are potential game changers when treating anxiety and mood difficulties.
B. Low Sugar/Low Simple Carb Diet:
It is hard to say this, given that a love for chocolate has a special place in many of our lives, but excess sugar upsets the balance in the gut by nurturing more pathogenic bacteria, which leads to increased systemic inflammation. And inflammation is a major player in the inception of chronic disease, including mental health difficulties — no good!
In a recent study, researchers fed a group of mice a diet high in sugar and then tested their mental and physical function. The sugar diet negatively impacted the mice’s gut microbiota, impaired their cognitive flexibility, and ability to efficiently adapt to changing situations. The change in gut bacteria also negatively affected the mice’s long-term and short-term memory.
Basically, sugar makes you forgetful and possibly impairs adaptability, but don’t fret, the chocolate craving can still be met: The darker the chocolate, the less sugar. Also, if you don’t want to cut sugar completely out of your diet, eating less overall can still improve wellness.
2. Physical Exercise:
Ever feel like vomiting when you are scheduled for a job interview? That is just a crude reflection of how stress negatively impacts many aspects of our gut, but give exercise a try, it’s a well-known stress-buster!
A 2014 study found that rugby players not only have more diverse microbiota, but also a high amount of a particular bacterial species associated with decreased rates of obesity and metabolic diseases. While the study didn’t separate the effects of exercise, stress, and diet, it certainly provides evidence for exercise’s possible beneficial impact on gut microbiota diversity.
Our gut microbiota talk to the brain and impact how we think and feel, and, the way we think and feel has a profound impact upon the gut. Therefore, negative thinking styles and certain emotional states can disrupt gut functioning and even lead to dysfunction and disease.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy geared toward identifying and reframing negative and counterproductive thought patterns. In a 2003 study of patients with IBS, a significant number reported less pain, bloating, and diarrhea after 12 weeks of CBT. Stands to reason that therapy should be part of a thorough treatment plan for chronic gut upset!
4. Relaxation and Stress-Reduction Exercises:
Studies have shown that stress puts us at risk for dysbiosis, a shift away from healthy gut diversity. This then strips us of a defense against infectious disease, which can potentially wreak havoc on the Central Nervous System (CNS).
Beyond utilizing exercise, which we already talked about, stress reduction and relaxation techniques, such as meditation, help bring the gut environment back to homeostasis. In a recent study from Harvard University affiliates, forty-eight patients with either IBS or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) took a 9-week session that included meditation training. The results showed reduced pain, improved symptoms, stress reduction, and a decrease in inflammatory processes.
Go with your gut
Just as the best way to boost our brain is by maintaining impeccable gut health vis-a-vis the content of our diet, so too, it might be impossible to heal a distressed gut without considering the impact of stress and our emotions.
So just remember, you are what you eat, and you are what you think, and there are ways to do both more mindfully.
by Jennifer Wolkin | Mar 24, 2016 | Brain Health, Mindfulness, Wellness
This blog post originally appeared on Mindful.Org
Running half-marathons barefoot in the snow. Climbing mountains while wearing only shorts. Standing in a cylinder filled with 700 kilograms of ice cubes.
Self-proclaimed “Iceman” Wim Hof, claims that he can do all of these things by influencing his autonomic nervous system (ANS) through concentration and meditation. The “Wim Hof Method,” is an intensive meditative practice that includes focused concentration, cold water therapy, and breathing techniques. Until recently, the idea that anyone could influence their autonomic nervous system was thought impossible given its assumed “involuntary” nature. The ANS is the system that controls all of our internal organs and regulates body functions like digestion, blood flow, and pupil dilation.
Our brains also use the ANS to communicate to our immune system, which might explain another of the Iceman’s recent feats: suppressing his immune response after being dosed with an endotoxin (a bacteria), which in most people leads to flu-like symptoms and high levels of inflammation in the body. When researchers looked at the Iceman’s inflammatory markers after being exposed, they discovered the markers were low, and his immune response was 50% lower than other healthy volunteers. Basically, he showed very few signs of infection.
Hof is definitely a statistical outlier, though one recent study followed students trained in his method. Apparently, they replicated Hof’s results and experienced no symptoms after being injected with Escherichia coli, a bacteria that normally induces violent sickness.
So, outlier though he may be, researchers are intrigued by the mounting evidence showing that mindfulness has a positive impact on our immune system.
The Floating Brain: Our Best Defense
The immune system is one of the most critical purveyors of our physical wellness. It’s our defense system, our armed forces that work to protect us from foreign invaders like viruses or bacteria. It is so precisely designed that it can distinguish between harmful unwanted pathogens and our own healthy cells and tissue.
It is so wise that the immune system has even been referred to as our “floating brain,” aptly named for its ability to communicate with the brain through chemical messages that float around inside our body. This means that if our immune system is weakened, perhaps as a result of chronic stress or invading pathogens, our whole body system won’t operate as usual. When our immune system struggles, it’s like a welcome sign for infection and disease.
Mindfulness and the Immune System
Beyond the Iceman’s superhuman experiences, there is increasing evidence that mindfulness meditation does impact our immune system.
A recent and groundbreaking review looked at 20 randomized control trials examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system. In reviewing the research, the authors found that mindfulness meditation:
- Reduced markers of inflammation, high levels of which are often correlated with decreased immune functioning and disease.
- Increased number of CD-4 cells, which are the immune system’s helper cells that are involved in sending signals to other cells telling them to destroy infections.
- Increased telomerase cell activity, the cells that help promote the stability of chromosomes and prevent their deterioration (telomerase deterioration leads to cancer and premature aging).
These results need to be replicated with more rigorous methodology, but they are promising, and potentially pave the way for using mindfulness-based techniques to boost the immune system, enhancing our defense against infection and disease.
And this isn’t the only study showing positive results. In another eight-week study, researchers at UCLA had 50 HIV-positive men meditate daily for 30-45 minutes. Doctors found that, compared with a control group, the more training sessions the men attended the higher their CD-4 cell count at the conclusion of the study (remember, CD-4 cells are the immune system’s helper cells). This study links mindfulness with a slowing down in CD-4 cell count drop, which is associated with healthier immune system functioning.
Richard Davidson, esteemed professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also conducted a study investigating whether mindfulness meditation could alter brain and immune function.
In his study, people were injected with the flu vaccine and were either part of a group receiving mindfulness training or a control group. After eight weeks, the mindfulness group showed greater levels of antibodies available to respond to, and prevent, potential illness.
Mindfulness Meditation and Possible Mechanisms of Increased Immunity
It’s tempting to get carried away by the implications of the research suggesting that mindfulness can help improve immune functioning. However, the question still remains as to the exact mechanisms involved in the mindfulness-immune system connection. Ask any researcher and they’ll tell you they don’t know yet. Some possibilities have been suggested, and it is likely that a convergence of all of these play a role. Here I present three possible ideas:
- Decreased Stress, Increased Emotional Regulation: It has been confirmed through research that what we think and feel impacts our immune system via chemical messages from the brain. Therefore, stress, negative thinking styles, and certain emotional states can have a negative impact upon our immune system, creating an environment increasingly susceptible to disease. Mindfulness’s mechanisms toward greater well-being are complex and multifold, but practice is implicated in decreased stress, decreased rumination, and increased ability to deal with difficult emotions. In this way, practicing mindfulness might stave off impaired immunity.
- Targeted Brain/Immune System Communication: Another link between mindfulness and the immune system is mindfulness’s direct impact upon brain structures responsible for talking to the immune system. More specifically, research indicates that mindfulness meditation increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, right anterior insula, and right hippocampus, the areas of the brain acting as our immune system’s command center. When these parts are stimulated through mindfulness, the immune system functions more effectively.
- Activation of the Second Brain (the Gut): Mindfulness can boost immunity via the gut microbiota. As per a previous article I wrote here on Mindful, the human body is comprised of trillions of micro-organisms, most of which reside in the gut, which are called the gut microbiota. It turns out that the gut microbiota are key players in the development and maintenance of the immune system; the bacteria in the body that helps distinguish between intruder/foreign microbes vs. those that are endogenous. Studies have shown that stress tips our microbial balance, putting us at risk for dysbiosis, (a shift away from “normal” gut microbiota diversity), stripping us of one of our prime defenses against infectious disease, not to mention the cascade of reactions that ensue, which potentially wreak havoc on the central nervous system (CNS). Mindfulness-based stress reduction impacts our immune system by helping to maintain healthy gut microbiota diversity that is often upset by stress.
No matter the exact mechanisms, there is viable evidence that practicing mindfulness meditation helps boost our defense against disease, and fosters wellness. And while we are a long way from this becoming a mainstream treatment practice—given possible egregious side effects if not done properly and the fact that very few of us can be an Iceman—this research paves the way for the addition of a new wellness adage: “Meditation each day keeps the doctor away.”
by Jennifer Wolkin | Sep 22, 2015 | Wellness
I’ve been writing recently about the profound connection between the brain and our gut! Most of my writing was intellectual, sometimes metaphorical, maybe a bit poetic, and also humbly instructional (i.e., the way mindful eating fosters health vis a vis this connection).
Today, here is part of my own journey with #AlimentaryAngst, the story that sparked my personal and professional quest to help heal mind through body, and body through mind.
Thank you to Further Food for publishing this and thank you for all the support. I hope this resonates-ultimately, that is why I’m putting THIS forth! What has YOUR journey been like? Comment below with your thoughts, I look forward to responding to each one.
To Thriving, xo, Dr. Jen
This blog post originally appeared on Further Food.
Let’s rewind. February 2013, I noticed that I’d become more bloated than usual after a hearty meal. I experienced a feeling of pressure in my stomach, as well as visceral pain, both of which converged to create a really uncomfortable experience. I also had GERD, and my heart felt fiery. My xiphoid process felt irritated. I was a hot digestive mess.
As uncomfortable as it was, I kept my cool. It was only a few weeks later, when I looked down towards the floor and couldn’t see my own feet, that I gasped with every ounce of guttural energy I had in reserve. I looked six months pregnant.
I used my hands to cradle my inflamed belly and I cried. I cried for so many reasons: the pain, the discomfort, the cruel joke of hearing my biological clock tick so loud I thought I’d go deaf. I only looked pregnant, but wasn’t. Was this some kind of phantom pregnancy? Was that even a thing? Was I about to be catapulted into psychological stardom with my new discovery? This faux-preggers state was characterized by the undoubted lack of a fetus, but a great yearning for one, and a belly the size of six-month gestational equivalence.
I went to the doctor. Gave her a history, which was mostly sparse, except for the few things I seem to always be relaying to doctors. I felt lethargic and tired all the time, and I couldn’t seem to ever get enough sleep. I never woke up feeling rested. Overall, I’m healthy, and thankfully so, but there’s health and then there’s “HEALTH.” The difference is the same as that between surviving and thriving. I prefer to do the latter.
My diagnosis: Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which had nonchalantly decided to go camping in my gut, like a pesky parasite sucking the life out of every ounce of normal flora to be found. Camping: as in pitching tents, and starting fires, and sleeping in the dark hollows of my alimentary organs.
The road to wellness began with self-compassion. Then, I changed my diet, and embarked on a journey consisting of many lifestyle changes. This was both extraordinarily cathartic and vulnerable to write. Yet, as a mind-body-brain wellness advocate I truly think it is incumbent upon me to share my journey. Why? Well, because my journey is what catapulted me towards the process of researching, reading, conversing, asking, anything I could about the topic. Gut health became a focus of not only my own, but of my practice with my patients.
I am blown away by the connection between mind, body, brain and gut. In fact, the gut is so powerful, and exerts so much impact upon our daily lives, that it’s even been dubbed the second brain. For me, knowing there is a real live brain in my gut makes me think twice about what I put in it, and I’ve never felt better.
Check out my next post on Further Food-I’m going to keep it raw and real, but will get much more technical and science-y about the importance of gut health.
by Jennifer Wolkin | Aug 17, 2015 | Brain Health, Wellness
This blog post originally appeared on Mindful.Org
Most of us can relate to the experience of having butterflies in our stomach, or to a visceral gut-wrenching feeling, and how often are we told not to ignore our “gut-instinct” or “gut-feeling” when making a decision.
Even from our simple slang, it’s clear just how symbolically connected the gut is to our emotions. Now, there’s tangible proof to support these popular metaphors.
We all have a microbiome, and they are as unique as our neural pathways
Research has shown that the body is actually composed of more bacteria than cells. We are more bug than human! Collectively, these trillions of bacteria are called the microbiome. Most of those bacteria reside in our gut, sometimes referred to as the gut microbiota, and they play multiple roles in our overall health.
The gut is no longer seen as an entity with the sole purpose of helping with all aspects of digestion. It’s also being considered as a key player in regulating inflammation and immunity.
A healthy gut consists of different iterations of bacteria for different people, and this diversity maintains wellness. A shift away from “normal” gut microbiota diversity is called dysbiosis, and dysbiosis may contribute to disease. In light of this, the microbiome has become the focus of much research attention as a new way of understanding autoimmune, gastrointestinal, and even brain disorders.
The benefit of a healthy gut is illustrated most effectively during early development. Research has indicated just how sensitive a fetus is to any changes in a mother’s microbiotic makeup, so much so that it can alter the way a baby’s brain develops. If a baby is born via cesarean section, it misses an opportunity to ingest the mother’s bacteria as it travels down the vaginal canal. Studies show that those born via c-section have to work to regain the same diversity in their microbiome as those born vaginally. Throughout our lives, our microbiome continues to be a vulnerable entity, and as we are exposed to stress, toxins, chemicals, certain diets, and even exercise, our microbiome fluctuates for better or worse.
The gut as second brain
Our gut microbiota play a vital role in our physical and psychological health via its own neural network: the enteric nervous system (ENS), a complex system of about 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut.
The ENS is sometimes called the “second brain,” and it actually arises from the same tissues as our central nervous system (CNS) during fetal development. Therefore, it has many structural and chemical parallels to the brain.
Our ENS doesn’t wax philosophical or make executive decisions like the gray shiny mound in our skulls. Yet, in a miraculously orchestrated symphony of hormones, neurotransmitters, and electrical impulses through a pathway of nerves, both “brains” communicate back and forth. These pathways include and involve endocrine, immune, and neural pathways.
At this point in time, even though the research is inchoate and complex, it is clear that the brain and gut are so intimately connected that it sometimes seems like one system, not two.
Our emotions play a big role in functional gastrointestinal disorders
Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it has become clear that emotional and psychosocial factors can trigger symptoms in the gut. This is especially true in cases when the gut is acting up and there’s no obvious physical cause.
The functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) are a group of more than 20 chronic and hard to treat medical conditions of the gastrointestinal tract that constitute a large proportion of the presenting problems seen in clinical gastroenterology.
While FGID’s were once thought to be partly “in one’s head,” a more precise conceptualization of these difficulties posits that psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as the modulation of symptoms. In other words, psychological factors can literally impact upon physical factors, like the movement and contractions of the GI tract, causing, inflammation, pain, and other bowel symptoms.
Mental health impacts gut wellness
In light of this new understanding, it might be impossible to heal FGID’s without considering the impact of stress and emotion. Studies have shown that patients who tried psychologically based approaches had greater improvement in their symptoms compared with patients who received conventional medical treatment.
Along those lines, a new pilot study from Harvard University affiliates Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that meditation could have a significant impact for those with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Forty-eight patients with either IBS or IBD took a 9-week session that included meditation training, and the results showed reduced pain, improved symptoms, stress reduction, and the change in expression of genes that contribute to inflammation.
Poor gut health can lead to neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders
Vice-versa, poor gut health has been implicated in neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders. Disturbances in gut health have been linked to multiple sclerosis, autistic spectrum disorders, and Parkinson’s disease. This is potentially related to pro-inflammatory states elicited by gut dysbiosis-microbial imbalance on or inside the body. Additional connections between age-related gut changes and Alzheimer’s disease have also been made.
Further, there is now research that is dubbing depression as an inflammatory disorder mediated by poor gut health. In fact, multiple animal studies have shown that manipulating the gut microbiota in some way can produce behaviors related to anxiety and depression. (Maes, Kubera, Leunis, Berk, J. Affective Disorders, 2012 and Berk, Williams, Jacka, BMC Med, 2013).
Our brain’s health, which will be discussed in more depth in a later blog post, is dependent on many lifestyle choices that mediate gut health; including most notably diet (i.e., reduction of excess sugar and refined carbohydrates) and pre and probiotic intake.
The brain-gut connection has treatment implications
We are now faced with the possibility of both prevention and treatment of neurological/neuropsychiatric difficulties via proper gut health. On the flip side, stress-reduction and other psychological treatments can help prevent and treat gastrointestinal disorders. This discovery can potentially lead to reduced morbidity, impairment, and chronic dependency on health care resources.
The most empowering aspect to the gut-brain connection is the understanding that many of our daily lifestyle choices play a role in mediating our overall wellness. This whole-body approach to healthcare and wellness continues to show its value in our longevity, well-being, and quality of life: that both physical and mental health go hand-in-hand.