Photo by Vitalii Pavlyshynets on Unsplash
By Allison Downing Jordan
There are two kinds of environments that are key to our health and thriving as individuals and communities: our external environment and our internal environment.
Your external environment includes the air you breathe, the sounds you hear, your relationships, your finances, your cleaning products, the biome you live in, the ozone layer, and so much more.
Your internal environment includes your hormones, neurotransmitters, and even the myriad bacteria living in your gut. Here’s a quick review of your gut microbiome:
- No gut has all “good” bacteria. It’s a matter of having more good bacteria than bad.
- All good bacteria are called “probiotics.” These bacteria eat fiber (anything our gut can’t break down on its own) and create life-giving short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).
- Gut microbiota can communicate with the rest of the body! This is called “cross-talk.”
- Cross-talk happens through chemicals and hormones — like a sort of microbial alphabet.
- These signals can all be organized into two categories: pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory.
- The entire body gets these signals, from the heart to the brain to the liver, through neuro-endocrine pathways. A huge nerve highway for these neuro-chemical signals is the vagus nerve, which connects the majority of our organs to our brain.
- Pro-inflammatory signals sound like this to the body: “Stop! Help!”
- Anti-inflammatory signals sound like this to the body: “Calm down. Relax. It’s a good day!”
- The only hormone receptor we know of on microbes is for cortisol. Cortisol excites pathogenic microbes (like yelling “Wake up!”).
- Researchers are still searching for the answer to the question “What does a healthy microbiome look like?”
Not knowing what a healthy microbiome looks like is problematic is creating a “cure-all” probiotic pill that can create the perfect gut microbiome. Why is it so hard to know what that is? Well, we have a lot of bacteria in our bodies. There are approximately 3.3 million bacteria genomes in our gut alone, with approximately 500,000 metabolites. In just the oral cavity, nearly 700 species of bacteria can be found. Researchers have not studied all of these yet. They know what all of them do, but they do not know all of the roles each kind of bacteria plays.
On top of this, every geographic location in the world has a different gut microbiome profile for the people who live there. A healthy gut in Africa may have an extremely different microbiome balance than a healthy gut in Russia. This makes it hard to define “one good gut” and create a probiotic pill for it.
So if you love probiotics, great! Talk to you doctor and see if you are taking the best one for you. But in the meantime, here are three other ways that you can help your internal environment to flourish on top of your probiotics:
- Eat Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
When we eat food, we are not only feeding our brain, heart, and bones — we are also feeding the millions of microbes in our body. This is why losing weight can be so hard! If we eat unhealthy foods, the microbes that love those unhealthy foods will flourish, and they will ask our brain for more.
Using cross-talk through the neuroendocrine pathway of the vagus nerve, our microbes can issue commands to the brain — like a million tiny voices crying out “Feed us!” The impact of microbes on our hunger provides new insight on the nature of cravings.
Eating fresh fruits and vegetables causes our healthy microbes to increase, which will increase those microbial demands for those foods, making it even easier for us to get our daily dose and to support our body and immune system.
- Decrease Stress
There’s only one receptor that we know of that’s in every microbiota, and that’s the receptor for our stress hormone, cortisol.
Your microbiota don’t have eyes on the outside of our body, so they need messengers to help them gauge how the body is doing. One of these key messengers is cortisol. If it’s present, cortisol decreases the activity of good microbiota, while alerting pathogenic microbiota that it’s a prime time to increase activity.
Choose one of these great ways to decrease stress (and do it today!):
- Take a 30-minute walk
- Do at-home yoga
- Write down five things you are grateful for (I suggest doing a gratitude journal every day!)
- Stretch in your chair
- Text an encouragement to a friend or coworker
- Ask for a hug, or hug someone
- Cuddle with your children or partner
- Make eye contact with someone and smile
All these actions tell our body that we are safe, social, and secure, and help us lower overall cortisol.
- Increase Your Gut Movement
Gut movement does not refer to the movement of our gut when we walk, bend, or run. It’s referring to peristalsis. Peristalsis is the coordinated, muscular movement of our gut that goes from the esophagus to the large intestine, and moves food through our body. Irregular peristalsis can look like acid reflux, IBS, constipation, or diarrhea. The walls of the gut are pushing food through too slowly or too quickly, resulting in backup of abdominal contents, bloating, pain, malabsorption, and thinning small intestine walls (resulting in leaky gut, or intestinal permeability).
But we’re not the only organisms affected by irregular peristalsis. Our gut microbiome suffers, too. When food isn’t moving along in the digestive tract, bacteria will over-feed on the abdominal contents. This over-feeding is a major player in bloating, which is essentially the fermentation of food in our gut.
There are a few ways you can help your gut achieve healthy peristalsis:
- Fight stress. Peristalsis, much like our heart, is governed by our autonomic system. It functions smoothest and strongest when we are in our “rest and digest” state, and not “fight or flight.”
- Lay down on the floor and spend five minutes breathing deeply. We love the Heart Math app and other technology for helping guide and rate your heart coherency. This can help you get into a calm state.
- Get craniosacral therapy. More and more people are hearing about craniosacral therapy, but one little-known fact is that craniosacral therapy can boost the health of your brain-gut axis by releasing restrictions around the brain, spinal cord, and vagus nerve. The health of nervous tissues directly correlates to healthy peristalsis.
- Get a visceral manipulation. Even if you have good signals going from your brain to your gut, you will not have good peristalsis if you have any restrictions around your organs. If you’ve ever given birth, been in a car accident, had any surgery in your abdomen, fallen on your tailbone, or collided into someone playing sports, your organs were just as affected by this physical injury as your bones or muscles were. Our organs are held in place by “seat belts” in our abdomen known as ligaments and fascia. When pressure is put on these seat belts, they tighten to protect the organ. Sometimes, they don’t release. Without releasing these restrictions, no amount of low-stress and healthy brain-gut axis communication will help the restricted organs to move.
You can find craniosacral therapy and visceral manipulation practitioners at IAHP.com. Click “Find a Practitioner” and search your area code. We suggest searching for those who do visceral manipulation first, since they are more rare, and then choose someone from that group who also does craniosacral therapy.
Allison Jordan LMT, BCTMB is the author of Stop Stomach Pain: How to Heal Your Gut and End Food Restrictions and is the founder and head digestive health therapist at Better Belly Therapies, an Ann Arbor clinic that treats men and women with IBS, acid reflux, and functional GI disorders to decrease food restrictions and increase quality of life.
To set up an appointment, visit us at betterbellytherapies.com.
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