The human body is a complex, interconnected system in which the mind and body cooperate to sustain overall health. If you’re dealing with chronic illnesses, you may have come across the term ‘neuro-immune connection’. But what does it mean, and how is it related to your health journey?
The Neuro-Immune Connection Simplified
The neuro-immune connection describes the relationship between your nervous system—the command center of your body—and your immune system, your body’s defense force. These two systems continually communicate to respond to threats and maintain balance in your body.
When everything is in balance, this connection operates seamlessly. However, disruptions in this communication can contribute to chronic illnesses, highlighting the critical role this connection plays in our health.
The Impact of Stress on the Neuro-Immune Connection
Our modern lifestyle often exposes us to prolonged stress, impacting the neuro-immune connection. Chronic stress disrupts this delicate balance, potentially triggering or exacerbating chronic illnesses. Furthermore, if you’ve experienced childhood trauma or emotional neglect, your body may be ‘primed’ to be more susceptible to everyday stressors disrupting this balance. In my work, I’ve found that this is particularly true for people with freeze or appease stress responses.
Harnessing the Neuro-Immune Connection for Health
Fortunately, the neuro-immune connection is not immutable. Employing strategies such as somatic therapy, vagal toning, intuitive movement to music, Trauma Release Exercises (TRE), energy healing, mental practice exercises, and mindfulness-based practices can help positively influence this connection.
The Role of Holistic Care: Maggie’s Story
Maggie, a client of mine, came to me with several ongoing issues. She’d been struggling with worsening gastrointestinal problems and was now breaking out in hives all over her body. Despite various allergy tests and medication for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), her condition didn’t improve.
Following a move to a new city with her husband, her symptoms had significantly worsened. Suspecting mold, she had her new house tested, found several strains, and spent thousands on remediation. Despite all this, her health continued to decline.
Once we began working together, it became clear that Maggie was holding onto old trauma stories within her body. The added stress from the recent move was the tipping point—her neuroimmune system was on high alert.
Over the course of about six months, Maggie and I worked together twice a month, employing a combination of energy healing, somatic work, and trauma release. By the end of that time, her health had completely transformed. She no longer experienced rashes, and her digestion normalized. In her own words, “My digestion is better than I can ever remember, even when I was young!”
I hope this exploration of the neuro-immune connection emphasizes the importance of considering the body as a connected system, especially when dealing with chronic illnesses. For those navigating these conditions, understanding this connection and taking steps to balance both the underlying immune and nervous system is key.
If you’re interested in learning more about the neuro-immune connection or need help managing a chronic illness, reach out on social media or send me an email. I’m always here to support your journey towards dynamic, vibrant health.
Your gut brain (or “enteric nervous system” if you want to be all sciency about it) is a whole other brain that exists in and around your digestive system, in the walls of your intestines and the surrounding tissues. This “second brain” is incredibly powerful, with 100 times more neurons than your spinal cord. It regulates many functions including immune function, quality of digestion, hormones and mood. In fact, your gut brain is largely responsible for the production of 95% of the serotonin and other “feel good” chemicals in your body.
Maintaining a healthy gut brain is crucial! Here are five things you can do today to take care of it:
- Eat whole foods. The more you can make whole foods a part of your diet, the more you’re giving your gut brain the fuel it needs to function well. By whole foods I mean minimally processed and resemble their original form: vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, nuts, grains, and even some dairy. So, olive oil is closer to a whole food than an oreo, for example. Whole foods contain not only the nutrients that our gut brains need, but also other important chemicals like phytonutrients and anti-inflammatory compounds. In addition, whole foods already contain these nutrients in the amounts and ratios that our bodies need to optimally process them.
- Avoid preservatives and food coloring. This is important for two reasons. The first is that foods with preservatives and/or food coloring are less likely to be whole foods. The second is that preservatives and food coloring are toxic to your gut brain and your microbiome. Think about it – if you’re eating something that contains a preservative that’s supposed to inhibit bacterial growth in your food, wouldn’t it also inhibit bacterial growth in your gut? And we NEED bacteria in our gut! That serotonin I talked about that’s produced in your gut? It’s made by gut microbiome bacteria that’s being directed to do so by your gut brain. Food coloring has been shown to be a neurotoxin in many studies, so it kills the cells of your gut brain.
- Keep your mucosa healthy. A significant portion of your gut brain resides within two layers of your intestines, called a “neural plexus.” These layers go all the way from your esophagus to your large intestine, the entire length of your digestive system. So, it’s important to keep these layers healthy! A good way to do that is to make sure your gut mucosa is vibrant and healthy. The gut mucosa is a layer of mucous (eww, I know!) that coats your intestinal tract and keeps the food from reaching those plexus layers. The good news is that eating mostly whole foods will provide you with what you need for a healthy gut mucosa. But if you want to supplement, some helpful things you can take include: L-Glutamine, zinc carnosine, immunoglobulins, polyphenols, and amino acids including L-proline, L-serine, L-threonine, & L-cysteine. Of course, always check with your doctor before adding any supplements. (Side note: Am I the only one that looks at the word immunoglobulins and reads it as immunogoblins? I always imagine these microscopic goblins running around in my immune system.)
- Promote the serotonin cycle. When we give our brain and nervous system certain input, it actually changes the structure and function of it to create more of that same thing. So, for example, if I live in war zone and am often anxious and afraid, the structure and function of my brain will change over time to one where anxiety and fear are the default state. However, the same is true of happiness as well. If you “feed” your nervous system with things that promote joy, the structure and function of your brain will change to a default state of joy. Since our gut brains produce most of the happy chemicals in our body, it’s important to give it happy chemicals to prime it to make more. So, spend some time doing things that make you happy! That could be dancing to your favorite music, spending time with happy memories or envisioning your dreams coming true in the future, or hanging out with friends doing fun activities. Try to spend at least an hour a day doing things that increase your happy chemicals and over time, you’ll see a change in your baseline emotional state.
- Gut massage. The movement of food and other substances through your gut (called “gut motility”) is an important part of the health of your gut brain, too. Since your gut brain produces neurotransmitters, hormones, immune cells and other substances that are vital to health, it’s important to keep things moving along. Here’s a link to a great handout from the NHS on how to do abdominal self-massage: https://www.wchc.nhs.uk/content/uploads/2019/12/Self-abdominal-massage.pdf
I hope you found this information helpful and as always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out and I’d be happy to chat more.
I see a lot of clients that have digestive issues and so I want to address what I’ve seen as the common emotional correlations for issues with the stomach, small intestine and large intestine. What does it mean when you’re having issues with your digestive system?
Stomach: If you have issues with your stomach like gastric reflux, ulcers or stomach cramps it can be helpful to think of the saying, “I can’t stomach that.” Stomach issues often come up when we aren’t living in alignment with our ethics or values and we’re being asked, or are asking ourselves, to do something that we don’t feel good about. For example, maybe you have a job with a company whose corporate culture is toxic. Or maybe you’re in a relationship where you’re putting up with a lot of BS from your partner and you know you need to do something about it, but you haven’t. In Chinese medicine, stomach issues represent over-worry or stress, so what is it that you’re stressed about but haven’t done anything about yet?
Small intestine: The job of the small intestine is to figure out what parts of our food are nutrients to be absorbed and what parts are indigestible waste that needs to be passed on to the large intestine. Issues with the small intestine like leaky gut, food allergies, or issues with slow or fast digestion come from having difficulty with discernment around if things in your life are good for you (nutrients) or something you need to get rid of (indigestible waste). I see a ton of my people pleasers coming in with small intestine issues because they have trouble discerning what’s actually good for them and what they are doing so others stay happy. They take on (or absorb) everything for everyone. If you are someone who says, “I love making other people happy!” and you have digestive issues, then this may be an issue of discernment. The way to heal this issue is to practice having better boundaries around what is emotionally healthy and good for you, and get better at saying “no” to the things that are draining or consistently center others’ needs over your own. On the other end of the spectrum, I also see people coming in who do the opposite – instead of absorbing everything, they are too rigid and controlling and don’t take the chance of opening up to (absorbing) anything in case it might hurt them. The way to heal this is to work on feeling safe around other people.
Large intestine: Let’s talk about how you handle your $h!t. Are you someone who is able to let emotions come up in real time and process them? Or are you someone who is always on the ball, productive and damn near perfect but then needs a glass of wine at the end of the day to come down from the stress? The large intestine is all about how you handle being upset, disappointed or stressed and whether you hold on to these emotions or have healthy ways of addressing them. If you don’t have a healthy way of handling these as they come up, the energy in your large interesting can get backed up and that’s when trouble arises. The physiological function of the large intestine is intertwined with water balance – too much and you have loose stool, too little and you’re constipated. Emotions and water are BFFs, water is one of the main ways emotions move through our bodies. So if your water isn’t moving well, I can almost guarantee your bowels won’t be either.
If you’ve been working with digestive issues for a while and still aren’t seeing the progress you’d like, feel free to contact me and we can set up a call. Also, if you liked this article and you want to know more about the emotional connection with other body parts or systems, reply and let me know which ones! If there’s enough interest, I can make this into a series.
If you’re someone who struggles with depression, anxiety or mood swings, I’ve got some news for you.
Your struggles aren’t all in your head, in fact they’re most likely in your gut.
Recent research shows that 95% of our serotonin (the happy mood regulating chemical) is made by bacteria in our digestive system. Surprisingly, our gut microbiome is responsible for much of our mood cognition and mental health.
It turns out that the state of our intestines and the health of the critters that live in them (our bacterial and fungal microbiome) can affect everything from hormone regulation to our immune system and most notably, our mood and cognition. Research shows that fluctuations in our microbiome cause changes in all of these systems and severe fluctuations can even cause disease in the long term.
There have been multiple studies that show that chronic depression and anxiety are linked to what’s called “gut dysbiosis” or an imbalance in the type, number, and location of various microbiome species. When researchers provided treatment that balanced the microbiome, levels of anxiety and depression decreased.
What does this mean for you? If you’re someone that tends towards anxiety or depression, the cause may not be all in your head. Of course, our past experiences and daily lives can affect our mental health, but it appears that even those experiences and trauma reactions affect our gut microbiome as well. Our head brains and gut brains work as one system when it comes to mood and cognition. Changes in our mood or stress level alter the makeup of our microbiome, and those alterations can in turn affect our mood and stress levels. Like much of our physiology, it’s not so much cause and effect but rather homeostasis (or balance) that’s important.
How do I keep my gut critters happy?
Here are 4 ways to keep your microbiome’s critters happy and healthy:
- Eat lots of plants. Our gut critters need to eat, too, and their favorite foods are what are called “prebiotics” found in vegetables, grains, and fruits. Make sure you’re eating a variety of these foods so your microbiome will have plenty to chow down on.
- Eat or drink fermented or cultured foods. There are plenty of foods that contain the healthy bacteria and fungi/yeast we need. Things like sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, kiefer, yogurt and miso are all good sources of bacteria that our guts love.
- Avoid preservatives, artificial sweeteners and food coloring. All of these have been shown to decimate our microbiome. When possible, avoid these additives in your food. Some common food preservatives to look out for on nutrition labels are: nitrates/nitrites, sulfites, parabens, cellulose, and MSG.
- Meditate regularly. The list of health benefits from meditation keeps growing! There’s a study that recently came out which shows that the gut microbiome of Buddhist monks was healthier than that of neighboring residents in the same town. (I want it noted that the study states that, “All samples were collected and measured by professionals,” meaning that someone had the job title of “monk poop collector” for the duration of this study.)
If you suspect that your mood issues are gut related and you’ve tried all of the above without success, you can always reach out to me. I’m always happy to answer questions, and energy healing is another great way to address microbiome issues. I have many happy clients who have balanced their gut health through our sessions.