Modern medicine is understanding more and more that the different systems of the body are interconnected and cannot be treated in isolation. Consider the brain-gut connection, says Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, MPH, a Diplomate of the American Board of Integrative Medicine® (ABOIM) in a recent blog for Harvard Health Publishing. Your brain can affect how food moves through your digestive system, absorbs nutrients, secretes digestive juices, and regulates inflammation in the digestive, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It does this by sending signals to the GI tract via the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Interestingly, the digestive tract has its own nervous system, Dr. Dossett says. It’s called the enteric nervous system and consists of about 100 million nerve cells in and around the GI tract. While the enteric nervous system receives inputs from the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, it can also function independently of them.
For instance, the enteric nervous system is interconnected with immune cells that send information about the GI tract to the brain. The GI tract and the brain communicate with one another in both directions, and because of this, negative emotions like fear, anxiety, sadness, and depression, can all affect the digestive system. Hence, our emotions can make the digestive system more susceptible to bloating, increase inflammation in the gut, and alter the gut microbiota – the types of bacteria that reside in the gut. It’s no surprise then that stress or heightened emotions are linked to a variety of GI conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
What’s more, Dr. Dossett points out, studies show that increased gut inflammation and changes in gut bacteria can affect other bodily functions, contributing to fatigue, cardiovascular disease, and depression.
Considering the strong brain-gut connection, it’s understandable that mind-body practices like meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises can improve GI symptoms, elevate mood, and reduce anxiety. And, given that diet affects the gut microbiome, adhering to a more plant-based diet with few refined carbohydrates and little to no red meat can lead to a healthier microbiome, which in turn reduces intestinal inflammation and may help to control systemic symptoms such as fatigue and depression. Every person’s case is different, but Dr. Dossett finds that a combination of integrative approaches can help to reduce digestive symptoms and restore health to both mind and body.
If you would like to learn more about integrative health care as practiced by Dr. Dossett, or if you are a physician who is considering board certification in integrative medicine, contact the American Board of Physician Specialties® (ABPS). We would be more than happy to tell you about the eligibility requirements of our Member Board, the ABOIM.