Trust Your Gut: How the Enteric Nervous System Can Impact Your Mind
When you get that “gut feeling,” it's actually telling you something important! When we talk about stress and its effect on physiology, your digestive system plays a huge part in how your body digests information. Diet in Ayurveda is defined as “aahar,” which can be translated to “input.”
Along with the food and drinks you take in, this idea of input extends to that scary movie you watched last night, what someone says to you, or your favorite song when it comes on the radio. All of these sensorial stimuli have to be digested, assimilated, and eliminated the same way we do our food.
Understanding this connection between your gut, your mind, and your overall well-being is endlessly illuminating and essential to discovering a state of optimal health.
What Is the Enteric Nervous System?
The enteric nervous system, or ENS, lines the gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus to the rectum. It is an intricate network of more than 100 million nerve cells, every bit as complex as the one in our spinal cord!1
An integral part of the larger nervous system, the enteric nervous system plays a big role in the healthy functioning of the digestive system. It is responsible for regulating the speed at which food moves through the gut, secreting acid in the stomach, and producing mucus on the intestinal lining.
The overall functioning of the enteric nervous system is monitored by the brain and central nervous system, or CNS. The ENS communicates back and forth with your brain and the CNS, constantly relaying important information. In short, the microbes in our gut talk to our brain!2
While your mood is controlled largely by your brain, your gut and the bacteria in the gut also affect your mood and vice versa. It’s this intelligent gut feeling that tells you when something just feels right or doesn’t feel right.
The next time you decide to go with your gut feeling, make sure that the communication systems between your gut and your brain are functioning optimally.
Why the ENS Is Essential to Health
The gut bacteria affects a lot more than you might realize! From all types of illness and physical challenges to your state of mental health, your stress levels, and your ability to sleep, your gut bacteria plays a major role.
Currently, about 30 to 40 percent of the population has suffered from functional bowel problems at some point in their lives, and it’s been shown that these people are more likely to develop depression and anxiety.3
Understanding that there is a connection between the enteric nervous system and the central nervous system helps reveal just how important the mind-body relationship actually is when it comes to overall health.
The brain and gut have a vast network of neurons that relay vital information, including how well you feel physically, how stressed you are, and your state of mental health.4
Tending to the ENS can trigger positive emotional shifts for people dealing with bowel issues and the psycho-emotional challenges that often accompany them. And even if you don’t fall into this category, understanding the gut-brain connection can keep you feeling well both physically and emotionally.
Stress and the ENS
In the right amount, stress is healthy and good for the body and mind. Healthy stress makes a person productive, energetic, happy, and creative.
The problem is, the body responds to stress in a particular way whether the stress is real or perceived, causing a cascade of physiological responses which can take a significant toll over time. Consistently high levels of stress can result in burn out, overwhelm, irritability, exhaustion, and a weakened immune response.
Boosting up your body’s ability to digest stress in a healthy way is the key to living a balanced life, and the health of the enteric nervous system is a key player in this process!
The Consequences of Stress
We live in such highly stressful times that about 75 to 90 percent of all visits to primary health care practitioners are because of illnesses that are rooted in stress.5 About 1 million people call in sick and miss work on any working day—all due to stress and stress-related disorders.6
Stress among all age groups is at an all-time high, including youth—especially since the onset of the pandemic. One study has reported over 50 percent of teens have struggled with anxiousness, and 45 percent have felt more stress than usual.7
For some, with the current “normal” working from home schedule, many workers feel the need to always be available to answer emails and respond to questions. There is even a term called “email apnea,” which is when you hold your breath for a few seconds while you wait to learn if an email you receive is good news or bad!8
According to Ayurveda, high stress is equal to weak agni, or weak digestive capacity. Increased stress levels lower your agni levels as a high level of ama, or toxicity, is formed. Ama is then circulated throughout your body, showing up as stress-related illness and dis-ease.
A Healthy ENS Can Relieve Stress
The good news? Tending to your digestive health by way of the enteric nervous system will boost your body’s ability to digest and process stress, preventing it from manifesting in negative and harmful ways.
To illustrate this fact, a two-year study conducted with 2800 working adults depicted that wellness programs at the workplace that focused on stress management and stress reduction led to more weight reduction among adults than dietary changes.9
Ayurveda—which considers strong digestion to be the very foundation and cornerstone of health—offers countless tried-and-true ways to support the gut and enteric nervous system. In turn, this care and attention will support the health and well-being of the entire body and mind.
How to Support a Healthy Gut and Mind
Here is a handful of diet and lifestyle tips to support strong digestion and a calm, clear mind. They're simple, effective, and you can easily incorporate them into your everyday activities!
The Ayurvedic way of life often incorporates daily meditation as an integral part of dinacharya, or daily routine. Physically, meditation helps you regulate your breathing, thus decreasing the heart rate and ensuring that your blood pressure is maintained.
A daily meditation practice also works wonders for bringing a sense of calm, steady spaciousness to the mind and nervous system. In turn, the enteric nervous system receives a major boost of health, sparking a positive feedback loop between the gut and the brain.
Adjust Your Diet
Changing your diet can go a long way in enhancing your gut health and uplifting your mood. Here are some foods that are especially powerful for supporting the ENS:
- Pigmented fruits and vegetables: These antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, like beets and cherries, help purify the circulatory system and positively impact mood.10
- Olive oil: Also containing antioxidants, this oil helps fight stress and support immunity.11
- Fermented foods: Foods like yogurt and sauerkraut can help generate the good kind of bacteria in your gut and regulate your serotonin levels.12
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Cod liver oil and other fish contain Omega-3s that are essential in producing serotonin, also known as “the happiness hormone.”13 Vegetarian sources include seaweed and chia seeds.14
- Holy trinity of onions, garlic, and ginger: These are not only a tasty addition to your food, but they're also healthy for the gut and supportive for agni.15
- Turmeric milk: Golden milk contains a mix of turmeric root and other herbs and spices proven to help humans restore, replenish, and rebuild. Turmeric Milk Mix provides an easy way to make this drink daily. It is the beverage of choice for an Ayurvedic lifestyle!
- Vitamin D: Get outside and walk in the sun for a dose of mood-enhancing vitamin D.16
- Boswellia: A detoxifying Ayurvedic herb, boswellia helps strengthen your joints and bones in addition to acting as a clarifying ally for the mind.
- Quercetin and black sesame seed oil: These can prevent excess heat in the gut and promote a healthy immune system.
Other tips for an Ayurvedic diet are sure ways to enhance digestion as well.
Consider a Detox
Detoxifying your whole system a couple times a year with an Ayurvedic cleanse can do wonders for the health of both body and mind. Generally, the seasonal changes in the spring and fall are a great time to reboot, rejuvenate, and gear up for the next season.
Carrying out a thorough cleanse of your digestive system will help ensure that your enteric nervous system receives a much-needed cleanup.
Thus, detox is a way to promote your overall health while also affirming a strong connection to yourself and your intuition.
Happy Gut, Happy Mind
This is your body, mind, and spirit—you call the shots! Remember that your mind and your gut are intimately linked via the intelligence of the enteric nervous system.
Making small changes to your diet and lifestyle with this connection in mind can go a long way in ensuring not only your physical health, but your mental wellness and emotional peace as well.