When fixing the gut, start with the head (Part 1)

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes 

 

The issue we have with the body is that it is such a complex machine that rarely when something goes wrong in one area, is that area the origin of the problem.

The symptom is never the problem; the symptom is always the result of the problem.   

In this two-part blog, I will give you the two regions I start with first when looking to help a client with gut health issues. These are simple, easy to implement, yet extremely effective. 

The Gut

Now you can't say one thing or system is more important than another in physiology, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to choose, I would have to pick the gut.  

Gut Facts:

  • 70% of the immune system is in the gut.
  • The gut produces 80% of the body's total neurotransmitters (including 90% serotonin and 50% dopamine and pretty much all the body's melatonin).
  • The gut will still work when cut off from the brain (impressive).
  • The other organs are dependant on the gut for their own health.
  • All hormones are metabolised within the gut organs or gut bacteria. 
  • The gut houses over 2kg of bacteria.

As you can see, the gut plays a massive role in our health and happiness; it literally produces the majority of the chemicals that make us feel good.  

You don't have to have a deep understanding of digestion and physiology but what you do need to know is that digestion begins before food enters your stomach. The sight, smell or even thought of food can set off the digestive process. The cephalic phase of digestion is the phase before food even hits the stomach and is responsible for 20% of the digestive juices being secreted. 

The Brain (First Step)

Your mental state can have profound effects on the way your body digests and assimilates food. 

Being in a sympathetic state (fight or flight) which is inherent with stress is a sure-fire way to mess with your digestion. Below is a table which describes the characteristics of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (stress or relaxed nervous system).

If you want to know more, click here and this will take you to a more in-depth video on this topic.  

 

Autonomic Nervous System Characteristics

Sympathetic Nervous System

Parasympathetic Nervous System

“Fight or flight”

“Rest and digest”

Dilated pupils

Constricted pupils

Increased heart rate

Normal heart rate

Increased respiration

Normal respiration

Increased blood pressure

Normal blood pressure

Blood flow shunted away from the G.I tract to the limbs

Blood flow directed to the G.I tract to support proper digestion

Inhibits salivation

Stimulates salivation

Systemically catabolic

Systemically anabolic

 

As can be seen from the table above, the sympathetic nervous system is not set up for digestion. If you've ever watched a public speaker, you will notice that they always have a bottle of water with them. You would think they could go for thirty minutes without a dehydrating and collapsing on stage.

And you would be correct, but, even if they're unaware of it, they are in a sympathetic (stressed) state and the brain starts to inhibit saliva, this is the reason they take small sips throughout the talk. 

Now, what's this got to do with eating?

As I mentioned previously, the cephalic phase is responsible for 20% of digestive juices released, and part of those juices released are in your saliva. So, if you were in a stressed state when you eat, your body isn't ready for optimal digestion. The adverse effects the sympathetic state has on digestion continue through to being sat on the toilet.

Rest and Digest

The parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) is the state in which we should spend the majority of our time and is best for digestion; it’s even in the name. 

 So how do we get there?

Environment

First of all, set your environment up so that you don’t have a million distractions and you can sit and eat in peace. If you’re watching TV or playing on your phone, you will have a disassociation with your food, and this will cause mindless eating, which will also cause overeating. 

You probably wouldn’t overeat a bag of popcorn sat at the dinner table with no distractions, but you sure as hell will eat the whole bag when you’re sprawled out on the sofa watching a film. 

Breathing

Possibly the most underutilised tool we have is our breath, and when it comes to tapping into our parasympathetic nervous system, nothing is quicker. 

When you’re stressed, you will feel your respiration rate increase and your breath will become shallower. Shallow breaths into your chest are also indicative of sympathetic dominance. To combat stress and to become parasympathetic dominant, you want to do the exact opposite. Slow the respiration rate and concentrate on big deep breaths into your belly. 

You don’t have to have beads in your hair and sit cross-legged on a cushion to take advantage of the benefits of deep breathing. Box breathing which comes from the special forces (so you know it’s cool), is a brilliant technique that I’ve used countless time with clients with great success. 

This breathing method focuses on all four corners of the breath: the inhale, breath-hold, the exhale, and the breath-hold. Box breathing emphasises control and allows your body to make full use of the air. The ratio is 1:1:1:1 and I recommend clients start with three counts, e.g. 3:3:3:3 and increase to five or longer, there is no magic number to aim for, see what works for you! 

 

Main Takeaways 

  • The symptom is never the problem; the symptom is always the result of the problem. 
  • The gut plays a huge role in our overall happiness. 
  • Digestion starts with sight, smell and thought.
  • 20% of digestive juices are released before food enters the stomach.
  • You need to be in a parasympathetic state for eating. 
  • Control your environment.
  • Box breathe like you’re John Rambo.  

 

By James Eagle 

 

Support your gut health with the right diet!

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