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The Gut: Our Second Brain


Do you take digestion for granted until it goes awry? The role our gut plays in health and disease has become increasingly evident as distinct relationships between our brain and our digestive system are becoming known.

Bacteria account for 90 percent of cells in our body; only 10 percent are human cells. Our digestive system contains over 100,000 nerve cells, more than the spinal cord. That is why this system is often called our second brain. Upon birth, microbe organisms begin populating our bodies to provide immunity and support. In fact, newborns lack healthy bacteria in their system to digest food.

Here are some other fascinating facts to chew on:

  • The stomach can stretch and hold up to four pounds of food at a time.
  • Food can be digested even when standing on your head. It is muscles, not gravity that moves food through the digestive system.
  • Hiccups can be caused by a temperature change that happens suddenly.
  • Aerobic exercise is the best activity to keep the digestive system in shape.
  • The average person produces two pints of saliva a day, equal to 2 cans of soda.
  • The platypus does not have a stomach.

April is IBS Awareness Month. Originated in 1997 by the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), this national health observance aims to raise awareness and treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The IFFGD says 10 to 15 percent of the general population is affected with ongoing cramps, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. Two out of three sufferers are women. Another estimate suggests 74 percent of Americans live with gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort, mostly undiagnosed and rarely discussed with doctors.

Our digestive system consists of a group of organs that break down food into nourishment, supplies energy, and expels waste material. Bacteria that live in our gut are collectively referred to as microbiome. They serve to signal 100,000 nerve cells in the GI tract that fight disease, affect immunity response, control the appetite, and impact our emotional state.

Today, digestive disorders consume the population. Experts say it’s obvious the microbiome of our “second brain” is out of balance. The race is on to understand and crack the gut’s complex code to optimize health.

Why are digestive health issues on the rise?

  • Reduced bacteria exposure. The first burst of bacteria comes as babies emerge from the birth canal. Babies born by C-section miss that opportunity. Playing in the dirt, kissing the dog, putting things in mouths are all bacteria hotbeds for children that also build immunity. Use of anti-bacterial wipes and spray cleansers diminish that exposure in overly clean environments.
  • Modern stress and anxiety. Continually heightened alerts in our bodies don’t allow the gut to relax. The microbiome environment changes, immunity weakens, and the resulting bacterial imbalance favors the opportunity for inflammation and disease.
  • Dietary choices and lack of natural fiber from foods. A diet full of processed and prepared foods may be convenient, but lack nutrients and lessens microbe diversity in the gut.

Start to improve gut health:

  • Eat healthy foods. Include probiotic fermented foods, unprocessed meat and vegetables, dark chocolate, and red wine. Eliminate sugar, artificial ingredients, and refined foods.
  • Maintain an active lifestyle. Aerobic exercise is supportive of gut health by reducing inflammation and generating energy.
  • Manage stress levels. Recognize triggers and make conscious decisions to neutralize stress with productive responses like deep breathing.
  • Get recommended screening tests. Many diagnostics present a view of gut health at a given moment in time. Get educated, ask questions, and work with medical professionals to identify appropriate tests for you.

The microbiome is complex and unique to each person. It’s crucial to our wellbeing. Like any garden, we want to nourish the soil (intestines) to grow healthy plants (bacteria) and minimize weeds (microbes).

Here’s to a healthy and renewed garden this spring!

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