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.

Spring Roasted Carrots and choosing resiliency

I fell down on my trail run today. It happened as it does, a little trip over a big rock and then skidding in slow motion as I attempted to catch myself before I hit the ground. Hard. I’ve relegated my trail runs lately to the hill and trail behind my house, which happens to be a little sketchy in sections with giant, difficult to navigate old-access-road gravel. Just the section I fell on as I headed down the hill near the end of the whole pursuit. I got up quickly, didn’t even brush myself off, and began on my way again before a neighbor in the distance stopped to make sure I was okay. I’m fine. Haven’t fallen in a while so I guess I was due. Well, just your pride’s bruised then anyway, he said. Haha, well no. I fall down every once in a while. It happens. I’m fine, I assured him.

A few minutes later and closer to my house, I looked down and realized I’d shredded the entire palm of one of my gloves on the rocks. And my other palm, the one that had taken more of the brunt of the fall, was throbbing. Scrapes and bruises already appearing along the length of my hip and shin as I got back home.

I guess I really have threaded deep roots into the just get back in the saddle lessons and it’s a long way from your hearts that my dad had on repeat throughout my youth.

Chin up. Shake it off. Get back in the [actual] saddle. Keep going.

Before I go any further I’ll clarify that I’m certainly very human. I fall down and fail a lot. I run in mental circles of doubt or fear or avoid big things I don’t want to think about. And I tend to be quite susceptible or tuned into other’s energy states — so the past few weeks have affected me quite a bit. But the big moments in life where I learned the most about myself and what is important to focus on was when I tuned out the noise and energy around me and tapped into what I felt, what I knew to be true, and found peace and trust amidst the chaos and unknowing. That peace and trust has been more or less my status quo emotion / mindset the last several days.

It’s in times like these, with everything around us up in the air, that I recall moments of actually getting back in the saddle from my youth. When my horse bucked me off during our moment in the spotlight during the championship class at spring junior show all those years ago. When she did the same (which kind of was her habit — we made a good pair of two strong / determined personalities) at a routine lesson with my dressage coach. Both times landing me on my back with a sudden whiplash after that slow motion almost staying upright fall. And getting up just as soon as I hit the ground, launching more determinedly back to the task at hand. Fairly exactly like in trail running.

Anyways, I share all this because I think it’s in times when we’re knocked out of the norm of our comfort level, when we’re literally shockwaved into a new reality, that our ability to deal with more than we considered we could and our determination to do so, becomes clear.

One example of this that’s crystal clear to me is in my local food producers and restaurant industry. From two weeks ago being mostly shut down to already having several local partnerships that have pivoted into creating local food hubs for online ordering and distribution. Farmers and food producers rallying to support their community and their livelihoods in record time. From the extreme cautions that our local grocery stores are going to, inserting protecting barriers for their clerks on the front lines, to wiping down every cart and every surface after each customer, and on. And on.

I wrote a couple weeks ago about focusing on the good things instead of what isn’t going well. So I’ll share one of the good lately. Our farmers market is considered a grocery store – so still open with a few precautionary changes, thus allowing our local farmers to keep going. I encourage you to support yours however you can because good food and resilient local food systems are essential in these times. And thanks to marrying into a partnership that had strong visions of growing our own as much as possible, these spring carrots I’ll encourage you to seek out and roast up are a product of our back yard, a deserted and ugly dog run when we began with it. Planted and tended by one last fall (that’s William), and pulled from their dirty soil home, scrubbed clean, sliced, seasoned and roasted by the other (that’s me.) It never ceases to amaze me what can grow from essentially nothing.

So if you find yourself needing some assurance through this (whatever this is to you in your current situation), let me remind you:

Chin up. Shake it off. Get back in the saddle. Put your hands in the dirt or nutritious food around you. Keep going. You have everything you need to know in this moment. You’ve been given no more than you can handle.

Spring Roasted Carrots, makes about 3-4 side-dish servings
Spring carrots, if you have access to them, are more tender and generally a lot more tasty than the giant fibrous ones shipped from California and the like. For access to all their carroty nutritious goodness, I strongly recommend finding the locally grown ones, since many nutrients break down and are lost after months or weeks in cold storage. Because they’re more tender, I also think they’re best when you roast them so they still have a little bite to them, like al dente pasta, which is less-cooked than I enjoy carrots in the fall or winter.

1 large bunch or 1 pound tender young carrots, sliced in half and perhaps quarters.
1-3 tsp. coconut oil
thyme, minced rosemary or sage (you choose one or all)
salt and pepper, to taste

  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F while washing and slicing the carrots. Toss them together on a baking tray with the seasonings and and a little oil.
  • Roast until just al dente, about 20-25 minutes, depending on their size.


If you enjoyed this, I’ve been sharing a few practical resources and video posts over on my E+O Facebook page about how to navigate these times with resiliency and less anxiety / fear, and am currently taking new nutrition clients. Be well.

Post-Run Pancakes, and creating a food community

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Over the past few months, William and I have been hosting, or being treated to, many shared meals with friends. We’ve been living in Eugene for over two years now, and though we still don’t love the city or consider it our long-term home, we’re slowly finding ways to make a community while we’re here. In almost every way, that developing of community centers around food.

We have a couple friends here that, unlike virtually any others so far, I trust can cook for me. I won’t be unknowingly eating gluten and getting cross contaminated, and I’ll enjoy the food and company. I won’t stress about what will be on the menu beforehand and if I’ll have to miss out on half the spread, or need to plan to take a side dish just in case. I can go about the whole experience being totally relaxed and spontaneous. This experience, though I know is the norm for those who don’t have food allergies and/or a history of disordered eating, feels like the biggest of victories for me, and one I don’t take lightly.

Like many people who have struggled with an eating disorder, I’ve always been drawn to food. I grew up just completely fascinated with it, always experimenting and exploring, always wanting to know more. Nothing about that has changed but the sharing of it, either at a friend or relatives’, or just spontaneously going out to eat, has shifted dramatically in the last decade as I began to develop more tactics for avoiding eating with others, or later, when I realized many of my health problems were attributed to food intolerances, and most friends and family no longer knew how to prepare food that was gluten, dairy, and for the most part meat-free.

That left me (and still leaves me), generally really stressed and anxious about gatherings that involve food. I don’t like to be the center of attention. I don’t enjoy having to make special requests. But I also don’t enjoy going to meals knowing I won’t really get to participate in them. As much as many of us have heard the advice to just focus on the people rather than the food, there’s something about the food that draws us together and opting out of that aspect is to me, a little like trying to arrive at a complete and finished puzzle, without having half the puzzle pieces.

Related to this, I like what Aran Goyoaga of Cannelle et Vanille said recently in an interview on the emotion of food:

I think my eating disorder and having left my roots really left me in limbo for many years. I stripped myself of identity so I could know who I am inside and what my purpose is while I am here. I have realized that the vulnerability I have felt the last few years by sharing a bit more of my true story of anxiety and depression have connected me to people and myself in ways I didn’t think were possible. And it’s interesting that I did this through cooking and sharing food, which for many years had such an emotional weight attached to it. It’s through the act of cooking for others and sharing a table that we can make time to connect at deeper levels. We can access levels of empathy and intimacy that are hard to feel in other ways. Also let’s not forget that food has tremendous healing energy. It can ground us and make us stronger or totally mess us up both physically and emotionally.

Other than being really grateful for friends that love to eat and cook similarly to me, and for those that go out of their way to accommodate my gluten and dairy-free needs by learning how to cook and/or bake in this way just so I can be included, I’m learning that being more assertive, giving, and willing to educate others, both about food intolerances and allergies, and about the mental health aspects that some of us bring to eating, are really important. Both of these often parallel topics are ones that I feel a little more called to having a conversation about with friends over a good meal, rather than brushing them under the table and pretending everything is just okay.

With that, The Recipe Redux invited us to to make and share bread this month. Though I’ve alluded to my current sourdough fixation here and on instagram many times over the last year, I’m still in the experimenting stage — because the art and perfection of slow bread is something I’ve long been called to and having a finished recipe that is ready to share still feels a long way off. I do have a really decent sourdough pizza crust going lately but given this dreary, cold, late winter season, my own personal need for comfort foods in the way of pancakes, and past history of pancakes making quite the meal to share with others, this quick little bread-based meal is one I hope you get the time to make. It makes my favorite gluten-free and vegan pancakes so far, is 100% whole-grain, and with the help of a coffee/spice grinder, most of the flour is fresh milled so it’s really quite nutrient-packed. I’ve also taken out all the oil and added in antioxidant-rich sunflower seed butter which gives it a really nice rich flavor. And because I’m still working my way through the last of the season’s winter squash, I find a really nice topping is a spiced squash and sunflower butter puree.

All together, both because these are comforting yet wholesome, and packed full of all the antioxidant nutrients (vitamins A, E, selenium, zinc), B-vitamins, magnesium, and iron that athletes need, I think these are great with the winter squash topping for after workout meals (that’s running for me), or perhaps just to share with a friend or loved one when you both need good conversation and lots of late-winter nourishment.

Enjoy!

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Post Run Pancakes, serves about 2
These make nice, fluffy, whole-grain pancakes. If you’re without or adverse to a little xanthan gum, either leave out or add a little more ground flax. They won’t be quite as fluffy, but still really good!
 
1/3 cup / 60 grams millet
1/4 cup / 40 grams buckwheat
1/4 cup / 20 grams chickpea flour
1/4 tsp. xanthan gum
1/8 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 Tbs. ground flax mixed with 3 Tbs. warm water
3/4-1 cup non-dairy milk
1 Tbs. raw apple cider vinegar
1 Tbs. sunflower seed butter
coconut oil, for cooking
  • Whisk the vinegar into 3/4 cup of non-dairy milk and set aside for a few minutes.
  • Heat your skillet or griddle where you will be cooking the pancakes. They’ll cook over medium-high heat.
  • In a coffee/spice grinder or food processor, add buckwheat and millet grains and grind until they reach a smooth flour consistency. Then, mix them in a medium bowl with the chickpea flour, xanthan gum, salt, baking powder, and baking soda.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk together the flax-water mixture, milk, and sunflower butter. Pour the liquids into the dry ingredients and whisk lightly until combined. Add more milk as needed.
  • Lightly oil the skillet with coconut oil, and use about 1/3 cup of batter per pancake. Flip the pancakes when the bubbles appear on top and the bottoms are browned.
  • Cook on the second side until cooked through and browned on the bottom.

Spiced Winter Squash Puree
1-2 cups mashed/pureed winter squash
2 Tbs. sunflower seed butter
a few dashes each of cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, cloves, and black pepper
a pinch of sea salt

  • In a little dish, mash together all the ingredients and season to taste with sweetener, as desired. Serve over the pancakes.

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