The Gut-Brain Axis – and Alcohol

You are what you eat – how often have you heard this little phrase? And how often did you just ignore it and think, “What a load of *&^%$”?

Scientists never stop researching and we should never stop reading. The more you read, the more you know (another useful little phrase!). This blog is all about that body-mind interconnection. Bodily health is mental health and mental health is bodily health. Think about it.

When you think about something pleasant, like a rose in a garden, you feel soft and dreamy. When you think about strawberry ice cream, your mouth waters. When you think about climbing a mountain in 6 hours, you feel stressed about the physical pain and time limit. When you sit in traffic and are going to be late for a meeting, you get sweaty armpits and a racing heart as your blood pressure rises.

That Mind-Body Connection

Yoga is one way to learn how to get on top of the body-mind connection. When you are on your mat, involved in complicated or challenging asanas, your mind focuses on just that, moving your body into the pose and being there, in pain or in comfort. The mind is empty of thoughts, just for that present moment.

This is what we should all be striving for, every day – a healthy mind free of poisonous judgmental and critical thoughts – critical of ourselves and of others. Resentful of the people around us who achieve more, love more or seem happier than we are.

Negative emotions can make us sick, and sickness can be cured by positive emotions. Our bodies hold our emotions so that they reflect what is going on inside us. Picture a monk beside a waterfall – empty of all thoughts, monks look serene, have healthy bodies, and live right there, now, at the waterfall.

Unlike most of us, rushing around in cars, in buses, and in planes, Whatsapping every five minutes, checking emails and social media every 6 minutes – our phones are our new appendages and addictions and we cannot see the roses for the apps. We are making ourselves sick!

Sickness vs Awareness

When last did you look, really look, at your garden? When last did you listen to the birds, watch them in their true, happy presence? When last did you hike in nature? Swim in a river or the ocean? Walk barefoot? Yea… think about it.

One of my favorite naturalists, Henry David Thoreau said “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil – to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”

He advocated sauntering in Nature as much as possible. He knew that it was essential for body and mind health: “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least … sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Our modern society is obsessed with worldly engagements! It is making us sick.

Have you ever heard of the gut-brain axis? When the gut suffers from dis-ease, the brain also suffers. Anxiety, depression, even dementia, have been linked to inflammation in the gut and imbalanced gut microbiota.

According to Wikipedia, dysbiosis is “characterized by a disruption to the microbiome resulting in an imbalance in the microbiota, changes in their functional composition and metabolic activities, or a shift in their local distribution. For example, a part of the human microbiota such as the skin flora, gut flora, or vaginal flora, can become deranged, with normally dominating species underrepresented and normally outcompeted or contained species increasing to fill the void.”

This condition is known to cause anxiety and depression. This means that there is communication within the central nervous system between the gut and the brain. Amazing!

Serotonin and the Gut

We know that serotonin is one of our essential happy hormones, a chemical that is produced by nerve cells and ensures a feeling of well-being and balance, contentedness with life. The catch with serotonin is that it is made mostly in the gut wall, not the brain, and circulates in the body.

It is also found in blood platelets, so is spread around the central nervous system. You can eat nuts, cheese and meat to get enough essential amino acid tryptophan, serotonin. Serotonin reduces anxiety and depression and helps with moods, digestion and sleeping. When doctors try to treat serotonin in the brain, there are side effects in the gut.

So, what happens when someone drinks alcohol? A lot! The gut becomes very unhappy! The brain becomes very confused. People know how drinking makes them feel – confused, unwieldy, happy then sad, happy then angry, happy then empty.

This is because the alcohol flows directly into the digestive tract and causes disruption in the intestinal flora. This then influences the brain via the vagus nerve and the immune endocrine pathway to cause behaviour that is simply not normal. Drunk people walk crooked and talk crooked!

The vagus nerve is one of our most important nerves, controlling mood, immune response, digestion and heart rate.

“It establishes one of the connections between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract and sends information about the state of the inner organs to the brain via afferent fibers…the vagus nerve [is] an attractive target in treating psychiatric and gastrointestinal disorders.”

Alcohol and the Gut-Brain Axis

It is fascinating to know that “studies have shown that alcohol-induced intestinal flora imbalance could influence the patient’s cognitive function, mood change, and drinking behavior through the interactions with the immuno-endocrine system and vagus nerve.

Alcohol in the digestive system is an immediate cause of issues in the brain including abnormal behaviour, depression, anxiety, and inflammation.  An “imbalance of intestinal flora alteration caused by alcohol leads to mood disorders through the vagus nerve.”

When someone stops drinking, they can get very depressed because their central nervous system is affected from being overactive to now being under active. If a drinker knows this when trying to get sober, steps can be taken to address it through diet, supplements and time, patience, serotonin boosting and therapy.

The gut-brain axis is an important physiological connection that we should all learn more about. Downing glasses of wine every night is sure to blot out your intelligence, from the gut to the brain, and vice versa. Think about it. You have choices in life – do you want to get depressed or do you want eternal happiness?

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