connecting the gut and the nervous system

I had an emotional couple of days last week. If you know anything about the Enneagram personality archetyping, I’m most definitely a type 4, so deep and vast emotions are a familiarity for me. That aside, I was emotional. I cried a fair bit and felt my own little volcano of melancholy come out in periodic waves. One such wave was on a run last Thursday morning. Most long-term runners know certain runs can be incredibly therapeutic and where we work through challenging emotions. This was one of those.

When I returned to the house after finishing and began my cool down stretch, I had a familiar mild, dull pain in my abdomen set in, and it continued throughout the day. As an old familiar, I knew exactly the cause of the pain when I first noticed it. As a sensitive child, I grew up with routine anxious ‘tummy aches,’ on Sundays before a new school week began, couldn’t eat before stressful events, and generally would feel knots in my middle when emotionally distraught.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a reason for this.

For anyone that likes to show up to an athletic race early in the morning, stand in line at the porta potty, and then hope to put your best foot forward in your event of choice, or perhaps engage in a similar nervous-inducing event in another area of life like a job interview, you know that when you’re anxious, nervous, or otherwise stressed, digestion is quite a bit off. That’s because the gut and the brain are intimately connected. The nervous system has several branches and one section, the enteric nervous system (ENS), is often called ‘the second brain.’ The ENS is the section that runs through our digestive system and is connected to the actual brain through a large nerve that runs through are central body and communicates in both directions. This is called the vagus nerve.  When we have a really emotional episode, like I did, our brain can send chemical messages to the gut that change our gut bacteria, leading to low-grade gut inflammation and possibly GI distress. Similarly, if we have a particular imbalance in the gut itself—through food that doesn’t sit well or isn’t best for us, or inflammation and excessive permeability to the gut lining for another reason, we often notice behavioral changes as well. For example, persons that have chronic GI distress often also experience one or several mental health symptoms, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, confusion, brain fog, poor memory, migraines, and more.


When we have continued stress, whether in our body or in our mind, the nervous system slows down or impairs digestive function. This is why it’s best to not eat when we’re in a stressful mindset or running out the door in the morning before work or while rushing between meetings. And why one simple way to improve digestion is to single-task while we eat. That is, eat in a quiet, peaceful environment and do only that. Just eat, enjoy, and actually chew the meal. And its why major stressful life events often precede major health symptoms and then diagnoses. If you struggle with digestive conditions such as one of the Irritable Bowel Diseases (Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Diverticulitis, etc.), IBS, GERD, ulcers, chronic constipation or diarrhea, and any autoimmune disease, your condition will often respond favorably to stress-reduction techniques. For athletes with any of these conditions, we often argue that our physical activity is our source of stress reduction. That may be true—in theory—but often our activity load is contributing stress when our physical and mental systems are way out of balance.

True rest and relaxation, such as spending an hour or more per day doing absolutely nothing, deep breathing, meditation or prayer practices, spending quiet time in nature, gardening, yoga, painting, or other quiet activities without a screen are sometimes exactly what we need most to begin digestive healing – not a fancy, stressful, rigid new eating plan. (Gasp! I know; how dare I say that as someone that works with people on food!)

Otherwise, I love to work with herbs for the nervous system. In fact, nervines, the category of herbs that work on the nervous system, are by far the ones I work with and recommend the most. Lavender in this blueberry lavender smoothie bowl, and skullcap, tulsi / Holy Basil, lemon balm, and lavender in this stress-reduction tea or herbal latte are just a couple relax-inducing herbal ideas to consider.

The nervous system is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I’ll explain the other categories of digestive imbalance in future articles. And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

References:
1: Lipski, L. (2012). Digestive Wellness (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

roasted zucchini and crookneck squash with pumpkin seeds, oregano, and olives

I went out to harvest in the garden this morning and after using up about 20 crookneck squash in the last couple days, I harvested a dozen more. And a dozen cucumbers and three tomatoes. I trimmed the tomato plant back a bit so I can see several others are nearly ready, and William on corn duty tells me there are six or more ears that need to be used now. They’ll be as many or more of everything tomorrow.

I somewhat jokingly wrote in an instagram post several weeks back that I’ve found the best way to eat more vegetables is to grow a lot of vegetables. No jokes anymore since at this point in the season, it’s an incredible fact. For me anyways, this goes particularly because even though the romanticism of growing our own has long since worn off, there’s a huge sense of obligation to not waste what we’ve watched growing all season, to not waste the many hours William has spent watering and sifting compost, pulling weeds, and turning over beds.

Me? I mostly just harvest and cook and then take the glory. As is true for most gardeners and farmers, we tend to plant extra of everything because inevitably one or more crops fail– and people who grow things are slightly addicted to growing more things. (A slight problem when the backyard is producing so much). This year so far, nothing has failed. Literally nothing except a slow start and replanting of beets which thankfully won’t be ready until the summer squash, cucumbers, and corn are about done.

Anyhow, one thing I’ve been thinking about all summer is how very little has been stated publicly, in the mainstream US news anyway, about lifestyle factors that can help us through this pandemic season. Eating more vegetables, filling ourselves up on all the colors, nutrients, phytonutrients, and generally eating more whole, looks-like-it-came-directly-from-the-earth, foods can go a long way. I was asked to write a little more in-depth about this topic recently for Territory Run Co., so if you’d like more details on specific foods, nutrients, or lifestyle factors to help through this season (like mindfulness for stress relief), you can find the article here.

Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to figure out how to gift a few harvest extras this week, and chop, roast, sauté, etc. my way through the others. A little Italian flavor inspired, this combination of roasting zucchini and crookneck squash, and topping it with an herby, olive, garlic, and pumpkin seed topping is just one way to add some pizazz to eating your vegetables. If you have a grill basket and would like to take the cooking outside, grilling the squash instead of roasting will be a nice shift in methods.

Roasted Zucchini + Crookneck Squash with Pumpkin Seeds, Oregano, and Olives, serves 4 as a side
Use any type of summer squash you have available. The smaller, less seedy ones have the best texture.

4-8 small to medium summer squash, chopped (enough to fit a sheet pan or baking tray)
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1/4 tsp. salt
20 fresh oregano leaves, finely minced (about two large sprigs)
15 small black olives (about 1/4 cup), rinsed, drained and sliced

  • Preheat your oven to 425 F. Line a baking pan with parchment and then spread the chopped squash evenly, so it’s mostly a single layer. Sprinkle with a little salt and roast until soft and borderline mushy, about 30-40 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, lightly toast the pumpkin seeds in a pan on the stovetop, and then remove them to a cutting board. Chop them until they’re in medium-small pieces, small enough to not be able to tell they’re pumpkin seeds, but not super-fine.
  • Mince the garlic and add it to a small dish, along with the pumpkin seeds, salt, minced oregano and olives.
  • When the squash is done roasting, slide it into a serving bowl, and then stir the herby pumpkin seed mixture throughout and serve.

Carnival Belly, Running, and a Digestive Health Survey

Lately, William and I have been taking weekend adventure runs, meaning we’ve been getting out of town for a good part of the day to run somewhere new. Often this is followed by a picnic with a very runner-favorite spread: PB&J sandwiches, fruit, and tortilla chips. A couple weekends ago, the route I chose was based on being new and not far to drive, and as such it was on a course that’s designed more for mountain biking. After three miles of steady running upwards amidst the giant forest foxgloves and complete peace that is running away from civilization, we got to our summit and the single-track mountain biking descent. It started out as a really fun, fairly technical terrain with lots of creek rocks, tree roots, twisty trails and garden-gnome spotting. But there were also steady, heavy mountain biking moguls, making every bit of downhill come with nearly the same in little uphill rollers.

By about halfway through the downhill, I had this experiential memory of being on a carnival ride, and I was unsurprised to find my digestive system was feeling jostled in just the same way. By the end of the fourth and final mile of downhill, I realized I’d taken for granted that the norm for runners is to cruise and ‘wheee!’ downhill once the climbing is done. And I’d gladly take that steady climb over the tumbling in my lower GI and the muscle fatigue setting in from all those rollers.

My carnival belly largely went away for the day once I stopped running and had a meal, but it was mildly painful and upset for a day or two afterwards. Relatedly, this week our annual relay team has taken the very different challenge of racing the 2020 relay race virtually, and because this race coincides with the hottest stretches of heat year after year (and no different this year), I had that same mild carnival belly throughout the day yesterday after a hard race effort in the morning heat that was quickly becoming uncomfortable. Similarly to the week before, the discomfort was mostly gone again within a few hours.

So What’s With the Carnival Belly From Exercise, and in Running Particularly?

When we exercise, our body directs blood flow away from the gastrointestinal tract and to the working muscles. This reduction in blood flow, accompanied by an increased release of stress hormones during higher intensity or long exercise efforts, as well as the high impact of running (just visualize the internal organs being jostled up and down as we run), all combine to cause damage to the cheesecloth-thin lining to the gut, leading to all sorts of uncomfortable symptoms, as well as impaired digestion and absorption of food and drinks.

And yes, all of this is fairly normal in small amounts given the nature of doing long or hard exercise bouts. When we are dehydrated (a big topic in itself for another day) and/or exercise in the heat or to an extent that we have a high body temperature, we further reduce blood flow to the GI system, increasing stress hormone release, and develop a higher likelihood of digestive distress. But what might be a small amount of discomfort and upset sometimes should not lead to or be confused with frequently occurring and/or greater than mild GI symptoms.

Despite the serene views, this was taken at the point in the day when the sun was getting hot, the water bottle was running low, and my fun to need-to-be-done ratio was starting to tip directions.

What Can We Do For MILD GI upset?
Rather than grimace and bear it, there are many nutritional and training strategies we can do to minimize GI distress. Primary strategies include being properly hydrated in the 24 hours before / after exercising, especially in the summer heat, as well as training the gut. Just like other aspects of the body, we can train our gut to tolerate different types of foods, fuels, and amounts. Other helpful tactics include avoiding NSAIDS around exercise (as frequent use negatively impacts the gut), and eating and drinking smaller and more frequent amounts during exercise–this method alone helps alot with optimizing absorption and reducing upset.

But what about when that GI ‘offness’ or tummy upset isn’t just mild, and it continues long-term or occurs frequently?

That’s what I’d love to ask about today. Having chronic or frequent digestive symptoms including nausea, GI pain or cramping, reflux, lack of appetite (in general or after exercise), bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, loose stools with undigested food, or limited food choices due to reacting to many foods are all big warning signs, kind of like our body’s version of a flashing yellow or red light telling us to proceed with caution, or just plain stop and seek to understand what’s going on.

Rather than address any of those symptoms individually or all together, I’d actually first like to know how common those symptoms are–so I’ve created an anonymous survey for you to tell me about them.

If you’ve followed along here longer term, you’ll know I write about digestion a lot as it’s one of a few factors that finally pushed me into clinical nutrition, and it’s honestly my favorite nutrition topic to help others with–partly due to my own challenges over the years, but also because it can be complicated and I love a good challenge.

So if you’d please, fill out the quick survey for me and I’ll see if I can share about any of those flashing yellow or red symptoms that can cause us distress in or out of exercise in the coming weeks.

Best summer post-exercise treat / summer snacking — all the berries!

References:
Costa, R.J.S., Miall, A., Khoo, A., Rauch, C., Snipe, R.,…and Gibson, P. (2017). Gut Training: The Impact of two weeks repetitive gut-challenge during exercise on gastrointestinal status, glucose availability, fuel kinetics, and running performance.
Costa, R.J.S., Snipe, R., Kitic, C.M., and Gibson, P.R. (2017). Systematic Review: Exercise-induced gastrointestinal syndrome-implications for health and intestinal disease.
Snipe, R. (2018). Exertional heat stress-induced gastrointestinal perturbations: Prevention and management strategies.