The fact is your brain and your digestive system are interconnected. There are thousands of people who are now on special diets such as GAPS, SCD or AIP in order to heal not only their digestive system, but also their brain. These diets work on correcting and healing “leaky gut” which then helps improve neurological issues.
Dr. Datis Kharrazian, author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?: A Revolutionary Understanding of Brain Decline and Effective Strategies to Recover Your Brain’s Health, says this gut-brain connection goes both ways. He says that poor digestion is really one of the earliest signs of a poorly functioning brain. Our brains control the digestive system by activating the autonomic functions. When our brain loses functional ability for some reason then it can’t sufficiently activate the gastrointestinal tract.
There is a direct physical connection between the brain and the digestive system. This connection is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is very large, stretching from the brainstem and wandering all around to all the major organs in the body including the digestive tract. When there isn’t enough stimulation from the brain to the vagus nerve all the other organs downstream are affected, including the digestive system. Food may begin to move too slowly through the intestines, digestive enzymes aren’t released correctly, we feel bloated and gassy when we eat, we have acid reflux, we get gallstones, we experience constipation or diarrhea. If left uncorrected for too long then we may lose our ability to digest at all, or lose bowel or bladder control.
You’ve heard “Use it or lose it” when it comes to muscles and physical fitness or brain cells and memory, which is why many people like crossword puzzles, sudoku, or other brain games. The vagus nerve and other neurons are no different. Dr. Kharrazian says “If you have a poorly functioning gut-brain axis and vagus nerve, neurological exercises can increase the plasticity and function of the vagus pathway.” Here are three easy exercises from his book that you can do at home to help tone and restore function to your vagus nerve and the gut-brain axis:
- Gargling – Throughout the day, drink several large glasses of water and gargle each sip until you have finished the glass. Don’t be dainty with this – gargle enthusiastically, make it challenging. This contracts the muscles in the back of the throat and activates the vagus nerve.
- Sing loudly – whenever you have the opportunity to really belt it out, go ahead and do it! In the car to and from work, in the shower, wherever you think you can get away with it go ahead and sing! Again you are working the muscles in the back of the throat. You are also breathing more deeply sending oxygen to the brain, something necessary to good brain function.
- Gag – Ok this one is the least fun of the three exercises, but it works in different ways from the first two. Get a box of tongue depressors for this one. Don’t poke the back of your throat, instead gently press on the back of your tongue enough to activate your gag reflex. Dr. Kharrazian says gag reflexes are “like doing push-ups for the vagus while gargling and singing loudly are like doing sprints.”
Just like any other exercise it takes a little time to see results. After a few weeks you will begin to see changes, just like with weight training. Dr. Kharrazian says that when you tone and build your vagus nerve you strengthen your gut-brain axis.
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