Guest contribution by Dr. Thara Vayali
Did you know that humans have three brains? There is the central nervous system (CNS) that originates in your cranial cavity (the “brain”) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS) that is based out of your brain, spine and pelvis. The PNS has multiple functions, two of which are the “fight and flight” response and the “rest and digest” response. The third, less-commonly-discussed one is the enteric nervous system (ENS) that originates in your intestinal tract — also referred to as the “gut brain”.
As far as we know, these brains are linked by only one vital nerve, the vagus nerve, by which they send their messages of joy and warning, back and forth. What’s astounding is that even if that vagus nerve is severed, the ENS keeps functioning without direction from the CNS brain headquarters. It is a “brain” on its own.
Mindfulness impacts the vagus nerve and thus the ENS directly. The ENS is a major factor in digestion and mental state. A mindfulness practice crosses both mental and physical aspects of health.
Let’s first learn about where the nerve hubs are:
- Origin of thoughts and reactions
- Over 85 billion neurons and 100 neurotransmitters
- 5% of serotonin, 50% of dopamine
- Origin of fight, flight, freeze and fall – the responses to situations of danger, fear and pain
- Slows digestive processes to direct attention toward managing threats
Brain, Pelvis and Vagus Nerve (PNS)
- Origin of rest, repair and digestion
- Directs digestion and bowels
Gut Tissue (ENS)
- Origin of “gut feelings”
- 100 million neurons and 40 neurotransmitters
- 95% of serotonin, 50% of dopamine
While the CNS certainly has the most influence on daily life, the vagus nerve is a two-way information highway connecting the gut to the brain. It delivers messages about the state of affairs between the brain and the gut. When the mind is at ease, the body can follow suit. Likewise, when the gut is at ease, the mind receives messages of calm. The gut brain is the group huddle for the body’s health and wellbeing.
Knowing this, let’s not only consider what we are eating, but also how we feel while we eat. A mindfulness practice is a tool that allows messages of restoration and digestion to flood the gut. An enhanced capacity for digestion can send messages of calm back to the mind
Take 10 to tame your breath and tame your gut
Before each meal, take 10 deep inhales and long exhales. This process changes your chemistry enough to signal to your vagus nerve that you are willing to go into a digestion phase of the day. Ten deep breaths is a short amount of time in relation to a day’s work – about one minute – but it can certainly feel long or inappropriate in your current rhythm.
Until it feels natural, perhaps do this by yourself, looking out a window or on a slow walk down the hall. Oftentimes, once we sit down to eat, our minds have already moved on to either hunger, conversations or time pressures.
Allow yourself the space and preparation to welcome your meals and let the nourishment begin.
Dr. Thara Vayali is a Vancouver-based naturopathic doctor and yoga teacher, UBC alum and popular guest contributor to our Healthy UBC newsletter who specializes in intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. For more information about Thara, visit www.tharavayali.ca