How to Fix Your Gut Health
Marvin Singh, MD, says these are exciting times when it comes to understanding our digestive health. Dr. Singh is a Diplomate of the American Board of Integrative Medicine® (ABOIM®) and an integrative gastroenterologist in San Diego, CA.
According to Dr. Singh, changes that we make to modulate our gut microbiome also modify gene expression.. We now understand that the microbiome can influence gene expression and that the interaction between them is what creates health or disease.
Dr. Singh goes on to say that the human body is incredibly complex in that all its elements are interconnected and interwoven, communicating with each other in an intricate circuitry. At the same time, the human body is simple because the diet and lifestyle that are best for optimal gut health are also effective for DNA and brain health.
The Brain-Gut Connection
Today, science has a deeper understanding of the connection between the brain and the gut, or the brain-gut microbiome axis. The gut has its own nervous system – the enteric nervous system – in which there are more than 100million nerves, exceeding the number found in the spinal cord. Neurotransmitters, hormones, and signals are generated in the gut and communicate with the central nervous system in the brain, so we experience changes in the digestive tract as moods or sensations, which can also affect memory. What happens digestively can also determine what kinds of foods we crave. In other words, our gut microbiome influences our food choices.
Eating is a multi-dimensional experience for our entire body, Dr. Singh explains. When we see food, our brain receives auditory, visual, and taste cues, and sends this information biochemically to the brain, where it’s stored. This process explains the idea of comfort food. Stored memories remind us that eating certain foods made us feel better.
Dr. Singh says that 90% to 95% of our serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being and happiness, is in the gut. “The nerves in the gut communicate with the nerves in the brain through the enteric nervous system and the vagus nerve,” he explains. “You can think of the vagus nerve as a huge superhighway, with information zipping up and down all day long. Things happen so quickly you don’t realize what’s happening.” In fact, he continues, studies have shown that when the digestive tract is stimulated, a part of the brain instantly lights up. And it goes both ways – the brain can also affect the gut. Recent studies have shown that situational stress can change how the gut microbiome works and alter its composition. For instance, in response to stress, the microbiome produces different metabolites.
Neuro-inflammation, or inflammation in the brain, is yet another aspect of the brain-gut connection, Responses from toxins, foods, stress, etc. can cause inflammation in the brain, and chronic inflammation can lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and is also linked to mood disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and even autism.
However, by taking care of our gut microbiome, we can reduce inflammation. When we feed our microbiome beneficial, fiber-rich foods, it produces short-chain fatty acids. Released in the digestive tract, these acids recruit anti-inflammatory cells that help to rebuild nerves.
“If you give your body the ingredients it needs to do the job it was meant to do, it will do the best it can under your environmental circumstances,” Dr. Singh says.
Exercise and Gut Health
People who exercise routinely have a more diverse and resilient microbiome. It doesn’t need to be high- intensity exercise, Dr. Singh says. Just moving regularly can strengthen your microbiome. “We say exercise is good for your heart health, and that’s due, in large part, to its effects on the microbiome,” he explains. The microbiome releases chemicals that may improve heart health and also interact with your genome by reducing the degree of methylation.
Compassion and Gut Health
Throughout history, philosophers and religious leaders have emphasized the importance of acting with love and compassion toward others. Now, science is proving to us how just critical these concepts of social connections are to our health. Kindness, love, and compassion also affect our inner biology. When we are mindful and compassionate, we can increase our telomerase levels, lengthen our telomeres, and change the way the microbiome works.
In fact, studies show that people who live in neighborhoods of low social cohesion or environments of low trust have less diverse microbiomes, but that moving out of those areas can improve microbiome diversity. Telomere research also shows similar findings. Cultivating relationships, taking care of family members, living in areas of less stress – all of these affect your DNA’s biology, your microbiome, and your mental health. Your body simply thrives on kindness and compassion, Dr. Singh says.
If you are a physician who is inspired by Dr. Singh’s work in understanding how we can all achieve optimal gut health through testing, exercise, and compassion, contact the American Board of Physician Specialties® (ABPS). We offer certification in integrative medicine through our Member Board, the ABOIM. We will gladly provide you with information about the ABOIM’s eligibility requirements and its focus on incorporating a variety of evidence-based therapies and disciplines to treat the root cause of illness and not the symptoms.