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Anxiety….it’s extremely common today. It’s scary, confusing and far too common. If you ask a group of women how many struggle with anxiety, you would be surprised at the numbers. Even worse, when we go to our medical provider, the “solutions” have a poor track record for solving the issue with a high risk of side effects. Why? Because our medical system is not looking to the root cause of anxiety. The good news is that we can learn about root cause to not only deal with the upsetting symptoms of anxiety, but, over time, very possibly avoid them from occurring. To do this, let’s take a look at the amazing, intricate workings of our brain connection to our gut lining, neurons and our vagus nerve-the longest nerve in the human body and one that connects our brain and gut.
Butterflies and gut pain
Think how you have butterflies in your gut when you are nervous, how your gut hurts when you are stressed or how you get indigestion when eating during times you are hurried/stressed. The gut and brain are connected through our vagus nerve and our neurons (over 100 million!) in the gut lining that communicate directly with the brain. Our gut/digestive system is a major player in all body systems-not just our nervous system.
Second Brain duties: Down and dirty for digestion
The large amount of space in the human body known as our gut/digestive system is often referred to as our “second brain”. We have over 100 million Neurons (more than in the spinal cord!) housed in the gut’s digestive lining that communicate with its “fellow” neurons in the brain housed in our skulls.
Firstly, our Gut/second brain is involved in our daily “dirty duties” such as;
- The daily “grind” of digestion-signaling enzymes to break down food to extract vital nutrients. It also…
- Moves your food along through the digestive system all the way to elimination.
- Protects us from toxins/bacteria through its protective lining and enzymes balance to create a “less than optimum” environment for these invaders to thrive.
By performing these physical duties, our Gut leaves the brain in our head open to put it’s focus on the more “intelligent” side of things like studying for a physics test, where did I leave my keys, what day is my furnace man coming….
Other amazing functions of our “second brain”
Secondly, our gut or second brain performs some other pretty amazing functions other than the dirty work of digestion and elimination….
- The guts neural tissue, holds up to 90% of the “feel good” brain chemicals–our important “feel good” neurotransmitters (neuro-think brain/spinal cord) serotonin and dopamine–that play a major role in our emotions, sleep and appetite.
- The gut houses over 100 million(!) neurons communicating to our brain above
This intricate two way highway of communication from the gut to the brain is a key player in our “yay or nay” for feeling emotional balance.
Why medications have limited effect and results
Modern medicine has figured out this connection just enough to come up with their “answer” to anxiety and depression with SSI meds (selective seratonin reuptake inhibitor). These meds are designed (created in a lab) to influence our balance of serotonin-our feel good neurotransmitter. Unfortunately, since the majority of serotonin, by far (90%), is housed in the gut, SSI’s–are designed to target our gut with damage to the gut and chemical changes in the mind that often have nasty gut health ramifications. Like all synthetic intervention, they create a greater imbalance that can often do more harm than good in the long run. All the studies and testing in the world can never mimic the intricate networking and balance of the human body systems.
Hyperarousal…not a good thing
When all works as it should with the gut-brain communication, we exist with balance in our emotions. Where we get into trouble is when we have today’s common dilemma of a nervous system in chaos or what’s known as hyperarousal. In a healthy and well functioning body and body systems, when hyperarousal happens, we have multiple interactions enacted within our body to help deal with this hyperarousal state:
- Your dopamine/seratonin, your “feel good” neurotransmitters–housed in the gut– would activate to help calm things down to bring you back to a more relaxed state.
- Your vagus nerve–the longest nerve in the human body that wraps around all major organs (including the gut), would be stimulated to indicate the need for our PARAsympathetic (our rest and digest system)-to help settle things back down in our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system.
Poor physical health affects mental health
When our body systems are in poor health, they influence our emotions in a negative way:
- Our gut health for most people today-more specifically–our neurons and neurotransmitters of seratonin and dopamine tend to “live” in an unhealthy environment so that they aren’t functioning as we would like them to function. Plus….
- Our vagus nerve isn’t activating to function as as a “balancer” to settle things downs in our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system.
While the gut is it a huge influence on emotional stability, we also look at the functions of the vagus nerve because it is the longest of the cranial and “rest and digest” nerves.
Vagus nerve interactions…amazing stuff
Because of it’s size and area it is involved, it is dubbed “the wandering nerve”– extending all the way from the brain stem to branch out and wrap around all major organs–including our gut–on its way to the lower abdomen The vagus nerve controls a large number of functions in the body. Just a few of these include the control of throat muscles (note how those struggling with anxiety have trouble with swallowing), bladder control, jaw clenching, sleep, digestion. And..of course…nervousness.
This is another reason why modern medicine drugs for easing anxiety have a low rate of effectiveness with a high rate of side effects: because trying to influence the vagus nerve “wanderer” for brain health is never going to be done without influencing every major organ in the human body–most often not in a good way.
How a once healthy system becomes a system in chaos:
Our “sustenance” known as food today consists of a diet high in irritating food and drink (gluten, sugar, dairy etc). These foods and drink create a sandpaper-like irritation to the gut lining (the home of 100 million communicating neurons) to inflame and irritate our digestive system lining. These irritating/inflaming foods/drink not only irritate our digestive system to interfere with the highly important gut-brain communication but also cause an autoimmune type reaction to irritate and damage the protective myelin sheath encasing our nerve endings=including the nerve endings for the longest nerve in the human body and the “king” in communication: the vagus nerve.
WHY are anxiety and panic attacks plaguing so many today?
*We live on processed foods that contain more filler ingredients and chemicals than nutrition.
*We eat gluten, dairy and sugar that are all highly damaging to our gut lining and microbiome balance.
*We pop a Tylenol and aspirin for any discomfort in the body assuming it won’t damage the gut. But it does damage the gut lining..each and every time we use that “innocent” pain reliever.
*We use antibiotics for everything from toenail issues to congestion to sinus problems. And yet antibiotics decimate our delicate balance of our gut health.
We live in a society with accepted habits that damage
Each time one of these above factors irritates the gut neurons and myelin sheath of endings, there is a message conveyed through neurotransmitters (and the vagus nerve) to the brain in our skull that there is a problem or “fire in the hole”. Early in life, this irritation is tolerated…we are young, healthy enough to often not notice and also to recover or tolerate the damage. But, over time, this continual irritation (unless we remove the culprits of the irritation), slowly causes digestive lining damage and deterioration/damage to the protective myelin sheath on the nerve endings of the. This damage happens slowly, so that most people will never correlate their diet with their symptoms. Therefore, they have no reason to indicate to them to change the damaging habits. Eventually, the damage no longer repairs, the toxic bucket fills and now…the foods/drink we could once tolerate…we can no longer tolerate (note–here’s often when we also see food allergies emerge). By now, your digestive system declares…I. Have. Had. Enough. by developing undesirable symptom including anxiety. Ultimately, the vagus nerve has different–but equally devastating–effects and can no longer function as it was designed to function.
Balance gone-anxiety as a result 🙁
With a dysfunctioning gut communication and damaged myelin sheath of the vagus nerve, we no longer have the built in response working to come “charging on in” to function as a balance to our “fight or flight” –sympathetic nervous system. This means, the vagus nerve and our neurotransmitters of serotonin and dopamine cannot function as they once did (and were designed to do) to give us the feeling of emotional well being. When these systems are inflamed from damaging foods and drink, the brain will also be inflamed causing it to go into overdrive: anxiety. AND, our “back up” plan of the vagus nerve for balance to our emotional chaos, no longer functions optimally. Thus, we have the dilemma of a “fight or flight” status– “hyperarousal stat– in your sympathetic nervous system.
Complicated interactions but there are things you can do to ease anxiety
Yes, these system interactions are extremely complicated. And struggling through anxiety or, even worse, panic attacks is extremely upsetting. But..have hope. Now knowing what you do about the damage of diet, we can work to heal (it takes time but it’s worth it!) the gut lining to help ease the emotional chaos. To deal with the chaos at the time it is happening, many have found the 4-7-8 breathing technique (described below) helpful to calm things down for the times our sympathetic nervous system is in a hyperarousal state. This breathing system works in two ways…it causes you to put your focus on your breath rather than your emotional upset AND it also helps stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system that includes your vagus nerve. Many people also underestimate yoga’s overall effect on our body and mind but it is well worth looking into simple starter classes or videos to help overall health. Yoga is a great way to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system as well.
Stimulation for an over-stimulated system? What the heck?
Now…you might think: “Why would I want to stimulate ANYthing when I’m already wired and feel like my brain is ready to explode? Because, when we are in a state of upset, out of control or hyperarousal, it can be helpful to stimulate our our vagus nerve. The hope is to help give it a “kick start” in its function of balancing the symptoms of a stressed sympathetic nervous system–the system currently in chaos and ultimately in hyperarousal state. Remember…in “the olden days” prior to damage, the vagus nerve may have been able to do its job on its own. But increased stomach damage that results in less “help” from our feel good neurotransmitters-seratonin and dopamine-plus damage to the myelin sheath of the vagus nerve endings, have caused a less than optimum response from these once helpful body “balancers”.
Helping “he who cannot help himself”
Since the vagus nerve isn’t–or physically can’t–perform it’s function for us, we look for ways to stimulate–or help–it. Stimulating the vagus nerve with deep breathing through the 4-7-8 breathing technique (made popular by Dr Andrew Weil) may help it to activate our vagus nerve enough to do its job of calming the out-of-control sympathetic nervous system. Let’s try to calm and soothe it with this breathing technique:
4-7-8 Breathing: Effective and available anytime…anywhere…
For relief at the moment when you are struggling with anxiety, a good way to get it under control is to stimulate the vagus nerve (and thus the parasympathetic nervous system) through the 4-7-8 breathing method. Breathe in deeply (pushing the abdomen out as you breathe in all the way to the lower abdomen) through your nose to the count of 4. Hold this to the count of 7, then forcefully exhale-saying “HA” and pushing out the air as you pull in your stomach and anus muscles (root lock in yoga) to the count of 8. It’s important to bring that very last amount of breath out (which is why we exhale to the count of 8 vs inhaling to the count of 7)–you should feel that last exhale at the top of your stomach where the vagus nerve is wrapped around it. Stimulating the vagus nerve stimulates the system in charge of relaxing the nervous system–the parasympathetic nervous system to help calms the brain. You can discreetly do this exercise anywhere: in the car, in line at the bank or grocery store, at work etc. I find bedtime to be a great time for this exercise to help calm for sleep.
Incorporating essential oils if you are a “user”
For those who use essential oils, Inhaling a soothing oil such as Lavender or Bergamot oil prior to using the 4-7-8 ramps up the support of our nervous system while we use the breathing technique to calm things down. While all other senses work with our intellectual brain, our sense of smell links to the limbic region of the brain and our amygdala–the emotional center of the brain. Soothing smells are powerful for nervous system support while we use breathiing for stimulating the vagus nerve/parasympathetic nervous system through the 4-7-8 breathing technique.
The chicken or the egg?
Which comes first–a stressed brain signaling a stressed gut OR a stressed gut signaling a stressed brain? The long and the short is that a stressed brain=stressed gut and vice versa. It’s an unhappy cycle. Our struggles are no accident. And, with the cause of the problem being a cascade of complicated gut-brain interactions, brain meds will never be a good solution.
There can be a better way…
Confusing? Perhaps a tad. But the key–at the time you are struggling–is to incorporate and use the 4-7-8 breathing method. It’s quick, easy and truly is effective. The other key component…and the one that requires more effort…is to pay attention to triggers–especially those most people overlook: diet-food-drink-medications and stress. Reduce or eliminate junk food. Make a determined effort to care for the gut. Eat well to be well. Because, like it or not, the gut influences the brain and vice versa. When we stop injuring our distressed body by avoiding damaging substances and reactions, we begin the process of healing.
Help your gut and your brain help you by treating it with care. It’s the first step toward better physical AND mental health. “Heal the gut…heal the body: (including the brain)…is SO much more than just a catchy phrase ;-).
How about you? Have you or do you struggle with anxiety? What techniques do you use to try and calm things down? Comment below to help others that may also be struggling.
To Your (Great!) Health,