How your gut can help you have a more resilient mind
You probably know one of those people: the kind that is almost never fazed by anything. A lighthouse in the storm who seems to overcome the hurdles of everyday life with ease. Perhaps this person simply has a fantastically healthy gut? VIVAMAYR psychologist Mag. Claudia Kohla lets us in on how we can all find our way to mental resilience via the gut and why this requires a good dose of courage.
Mental resilience starts in the gut
Your intestine reaches a total length of around seven meters, making it the largest internal organ in the human body. Although it only measures a few centimeters in diameter, it is wound around multiple times and has around four million villi that absorb and transport nutrients to the blood and lymph. For this process to take place, food remains in the small intestine for up to nine hours, and up to an incredible 30 hours in the large intestine. If you were to take the villi, or the mucous membrane of the intestine as a whole, and spread it out, it would cover a surface area of 400 to 500 square meters.
It sounds like a true marvel, carrying out vital tasks to keep us alive every single day. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that our intestinal health plays a crucial role in our well-being and overall health, both mentally and physically.
“What’s fascinating is that our gut is connected to our brain via what’s known as the vagus nerve. On the one hand, it plays a part in rapid, intense decisions that quite literally ‘come from the gut’. And on the other, the vagus nerve is also directly involved in calming us down, meaning that it is instrumental in determining how well we deal with stressful situations”, explains Claudia Kohla, psychologist at the VIVAMAYR Health Resort Maria Wörth in Carinthia. “This is the nerve that also reflects the health of the gutin our mental resilience.” However, the vagus nerve is merely the interface between gut and brain. In fact, it is actually the millions of nerve cells that line the entire gastrointestinal tract in the form of a complex network known as the enteric nervous system that transmit information to the brain. A sizeable 90 percent of this information is transmitted unconsciously. Although these signals contribute to conscious sensations such as hunger, the urge to empty your bowels or a feeling of well-being, they also influence emotional and cognitive processes, which mostly occur without us realizing.
The enteric nervous system is an autonomous nervous system that regulates the secretion of the digestive juices and the movements of the digestive tract completely independently. Even though it is not directly linked to the central or peripheral nervous system, it is still influenced by these by way of other points of connection such as the vagus nerve.
The influence of emotions on the gut and our mental resilience
“The vagus nerve begins to form at a very young age. During this process, it is strengthened in particular by the quality of the bond between the parents and the child. If this bond is characterized by love, trust and a feeling of being well cared for, the nerve develops into a strong strand. If the early childhood years are predominantly marked by feelings of being lost and alone, the development of the nerve is weaker. Both of these scenarios have a corresponding effect on mental resilience later on”, explains Ms. Kohla, detailing how, “The gut actually has a large number of oxytocin receptors. Oxytocin is well-known as the “cuddle hormone” that reinforces the emotional bond between living beings. While the body is still developing, a lack of oxytocin can lead to an abnormal formation of the gut. For this reason, good early bonding between parent and child is crucial for a strong vagus nerve and high mental resilience.”
Coming to terms with trauma as the key to mental resilience
“Although the vagus nerve can be strengthened using relaxation techniques such as autogenic training and meditation, if emotional trauma from early childhood is present, these techniques will merely scratch the surface.” The expert is referring here to the immense significance of emotional health, which has a major influence on the gut and, therefore, on our overall health. Many people carry around traumas from the past. A lot of these are unconscious, and only come to the surface in situations that put us under pressure, for example, or that trigger negative stress in other ways. If this emotional pressure builds up inside us, it will have an effect on our organs, sooner or later. They exhibit increased strain, which in turn impairs their proper functioning. “If we then use physical treatments or mental techniques to attend to our gut, this is good for treating symptoms but doesn’t address the root cause of the emotional trauma”, Ms. Kohla explains. “Only by decoupling the emotions from the gut in therapy can the cause be remedied and the trauma thus overcome.” This allows the gut to develop healthily and a high level of mental resilience to be established.
Mental resilience: the easiest thing in the world?
Now we are well aware of the connections and the solution is clear too – so becoming emotionally balance