Once we delve into the belly we begin to taste the intricate connective webbing of body and mind. We cannot discuss the stomach without exploring the esophagus, intestines, colon and the digestive process. Once we get into digestion, we cannot leave out the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and the vagus nerve. This is a big mouthful, so my intention is to break each bit up into tasty morsels that are easy to digest. Sit back, relax, and enjoy every flavor.
Even before you take a big bite of chocolate, digestion is beginning as the smell inspires salivation. Once the chocolate enters your mouth, juices and chewing begin breaking it down into molecules of nutrients small enough to be absorbed in the blood and spread to cells throughout the body. The digestive system is a long twisted up hollow tube, connecting organs from the mouth to the anus. Once the chocolate is swallowed it has a long and winding road ahead. It has to travel through the esophagus, down to the stomach, and all the way through a maze of intestines, where nutrients can be absorbed through the intestinal walls. The rejected parts are pushed down and stored in the colon to be released back out to the world. Much of this journey must feel like being in the ocean, as the muscle tissues of the esophagus, stomach and intestines contract in a wave. This is called peristalsis and helps propel everything through the complicated tangle of tubing.
The only part of this adventure that we consciously control is what we put in our mouths and the muscles used to swallow. Once the food has passed the throat, the nerves in our guts take charge. The guts have their own nervous system called the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is responsible for moving food along and releasing the right hormones and enzymes for digestion. This system gets to act without wasting time checking in with the brain upstairs, but they are intimately connected by the vagus nerve which spans from the brain stem to the stomach. You may have heard of the vagus nerve because of its important role in the ability to rest, relax, and digest.
Now it is worth mentioning the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic can be simplified as the “fight or flight” system, and the parasympathetic as the “rest and digest” system. Here’s an oversimplified explanation of how this works: the body senses stress, alerts the brain who says, “let’s not die” and sends blood out to our arms and legs in case we need to run from a tiger. We are set up to survive so our systems don’t waste time differentiating all the types of modern stress we experience; in case we need to fight a large beast, the body is ready. Even if the stress is from a disagreement with a girlfriend, the body will send blood away from the belly and out to our limbs. What this means is that in times of stress, we can’t digest food, poop, give birth easefully . . . Because in case we need to run or fight, the body is not going to let us relax or get in the middle of something like pooping.
See how important relaxation is? Bodywork modalities like Craniosacral tap in to the parasympathetic nervous system, as we slow down, notice the breath and become more aware of subtleties in the body, like the sensations in our bones or the wave-like contractions in our guts, or blood flowing through our veins. Craniosacral can also ensure that bones are optimally aligned to avoid things like a pinched vagus nerve that could impair our ability to relax or digest. This is a common cause of “colic” in babies that is easily prevented and treated.
When we become relaxed we give these bodies time to digest, to repair muscle fibers, to check each cell and clear out any junk that is no longer serving us. It is vital to our immune systems, our digestive systems, our ability to be happy, that we give ourselves ample time to rest and relax every day. Relaxation is extremely therapeutic.
That feels like enough to chew on for now. Have you decided if the brain in your head is in charge or the brain in your belly? What matters more, what you eat or the state of mind in which you eat it? The next time you have a meal, consider what would help you to relax: soft lighting, gentle music, a more comfortable supportive seat. Until next time . . . Relax! It’s good for your digestion.
2 Fun Gut Facts: -There are 100 billion neurons in the gut -95% of serotonin (a happy chemical) in the body is in the gut
To Further Feed Your Curiosity Read: The Second Brain written by Michael Gershon, M.D
Carol Anne Lesser, LMT, CST
Healing Touch Craniosacral And Massage