I came across two interesting articles this week concerning our “two brains”, the one in your head and the one in your gut. A report in the Wall Street Journal (1/17/12), details the importance of the gut to overall health. The gut, consisting of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines, has its own nervous system (called the enteric nervous system), and can operate independently from the brain. It can control organs including the pancreas and gall bladder via nervous connections. The gut also contains many of the same neurotransmitters found in the brain, and also manufactures its own hormones-these can interact with other organs such as the heart and lungs. The brain, spinal cord, and gut are filled with nerve cells; the small intestine alone contains 100 million neurons, roughly the same amount as in the spinal cord. The vagus nerve stretches from the brain to the stomach, and is the main conduit between the two.I think most of us know that when our gut feels bad, such as with indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, or worse; we feel bad. However, the ailments go beyond digestion. Disruptions in intestinal flora affect mood, depression, and may be indicated in epileptic issues. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter found in the brain, is manufactured in the gut. Low levels of serotonin in the brain are known to affect mood and sleep. Serotonin also helps push food through the digestive tract, is necessary for repairing liver cells, and plays a role in normal heart development and bone-mass accumulation. The gut may also shed some light on Parkinson’s disease; some of the damage to the brain neurons that make the neurotransmitter dopamine also occur n the gut neurons. So, what can you do to keep your gut healthy? A diet rich in citrus fruit, fiber-rich foods like beans, leafy greens and yellow vegetables. The onion family is also beneficial to gut health; onions, leeks, and garlic contain anti-cancer, antibiotic, antiseptic properties. Several spices are also helpful; turmeric powder, rosemary, peppermint, and oregano are some of the best. There are also simple exercises that can help; deep breathing, the prone cobra position (yoga), supine bridge (lying on your back with knees bent-lift your tush into the air), and the wood chop (self-explanatory). If you take care of your gut, you’ll be much better off, both physically and mentally.
A column written by Gretchen Reynolds,in the New York Times (9/28/11) reaffirms the benefits of exercise on the other brain (in your head). Earlier studies, of which I’ve blogged about, have shown that exercise sparks neurogenesis-the creation of new brain cells. This particular study, at the University of South Carolina, looked at whether exercise helped existing brain cells, akin to what exercise does to strengthen skeletal muscle. Like muscle, many parts of the brain get a workout during physical exercise. “The brain has to work hard to keep the muscles moving, and all of the body systems in sync”, says J. Mark Davis, a professor of exercise science at the Arnold School of Public Health at the university. To see if exercise helped existing brain cells, researchers exercised mice for eight weeks-a sedentary group was kept in the same cages as the runners, so that with the exception of the treadmill sessions, both groups shared the same environment and routine. At the end of two months, scientists found markers of renewed redevelopment in the brain cells in all of the exercising mice-the sedentary group did not show this effect. And, although this study was done with mice, and mouse brains are not human brains, there is reason to believe that there is a similar effect in humans, since both mice and humans show muscle cell re-genesis with exercise. Revitalized brain cells could reduce mental fatigue and sharpen your thinking. There is also hope that this finding and others could lead to treatment for neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Best part, the physical stimulus to get your brain cells into shape is a 30-minute jog, or the equivalent.
Stay well, John R Blilie, M.S.