Why is it so difficult to heal your gut? When a patient schedules a visit with me, I am never the first doctor that they choose—I am usually the last resort. Most of my patients have been to their Primary Care Doctor (PCP), specialists, and alternative medicine doctors like Ayurveda practitioners or naturopaths. They’ve travelled to the top medical centers around the country.
They’ve even tried to treat themselves. My patients have tried so many different diets: Whole 30, Keto, Vegan, etc. They’ve taken the medications their doctors prescribed, tried so many supplements, and yet they still end up in my office, usually worse than when they started. We have even started care, ordered diagnostic Functional Medicine testing, implemented treatment plans and yet, my most difficult patients are still suffering. As a perfectionist, I could not let these people go. I had to figure out what we were missing. And what was that?
The gut-brain connection.
Gut-brain what? No way! Yes, your mind, heart, and spirit can influence your gut and your gut can influence your mind. Through your feelings and emotions, you can make yourself constipated, give yourself loose stools, inhibit your stomach acid production, block nutrient absorption, and shut down growth of your healthy gut bacteria. But it is a two-way street, so at the same time, if your microbiome is imbalanced, filled with what is called “dysbiotic bacteria,” then they can also affect your mind by blocking your dopamine production and making you more stressed or anxious.
What creates this connection? Your vagus nerve, which carries signals back and forth from your brain to your gut and your gut to your brain. Many of us forget that our gut is lined with an entire nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS develops from cells that originate in the vagal region of your brain. Our ENS is estimated to have 100 to 500 million neurons, the largest accumulation of nerve cells in the body, and they surround the area from your esophagus to your anus. Roles of your ENS include:
- helping to maintain intestinal barrier
- regulating immune response
- detecting nutrients
- motility • circulation
- secretion of fluids, ions, and peptides
How does the Central Nervous System (CNS, your brain and spinal cord) influence the ENS? Through the signals it sends down your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is run by your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which has two branches, sympathetic and parasympathetic. Autonomic basically means automatic, which means this system is always on and works without you having to think about it. Both responses are equally important, but they must be living in balance.
Now that I live in Montana, there is a really simple analogy I like to use to explain the difference between the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. Sympathetic is “fight or flight” and parasympathetic is “rest and digest.” If I am hiking in the mountains and I encounter a grizzly bear, my sympathetic nervous system is activated, and my blood and energy go to my brain and muscles to escape. If I do survive and make it back to my campsite and am sitting by the campfire having my favorite food, my parasympathetic response is activated. I am relaxed and the blood and energy go to my gut to help me digest and absorb nutrients.
When we are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually relaxed, we are sending calming signals to our gut to digest our food and let our probiotics grow. However, most of us do not live this way; we live in a constant state of fight or flight. And it starts right when we wake up, when we go straight to our phones, texts, emails, social media, breaking news, etc. Our mind is telling our gut “We don’t need you today. Today we have to survive.” Then we eat breakfast while we’re watching the news and the gut gets confused, thinking “There’s food here to break down,” but the mind, body, and spirit are telling the gut that now is not the time.
For most of us, it is not our fault, and we have no idea it’s happening. Most of us have trauma that we are not even aware is trauma. We tend to associate the word trauma with physical events, yet it can also be a psychological phenomenon tied to ways we were treated based on our self-identity. For example, mine was being a first-generation American. I grew up convincing myself that I did not fit in and was not good enough, even though these things were not true. The way I figured this out was working with a qualified mental health practitioner to uncover the roots of my trauma. I recommend the same for you as it is quite often the missing link in the gutbrain connection.
The good news is that if you have already changed your diet and done the right testing and treatment, then you will start to see the results you were looking for when you shift focus to your mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
As a Functional Medicine M.D., Dr. Peter Kozlowski uses a broad array of tools to find the source of the body’s dysfunction: he takes the time to listen to his patients and plots their history on a timeline, considering what makes them unique and co-creating with them a truly individualized care plan. Currently he works with patients online and in person via his Chicago, Illinois and Bozeman, Montana based offices. Dr. Kozlowski did his residency in Family Practice, but started training in Functional Medicine as an intern. He trained in the clinics with leaders in his field including Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr. Deepak Chopra, and Dr. Susan Blum. To learn more, check out his book, Unfunc Your Gut.