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Harnessing the Second Brain – 3 Ways to Nurture the Mind-Gut Connection for Optimal Health

Updated: 6 days ago


Mind-Gut Connection and Health

The second brain – the microbiome mind-gut axis. [1]



Contents

Go With Your Gut

Correct Imbalances with TCM

Reduce Stress

Reinforce the Mind-Gut Connection

Harmonious Interpersonal Relationships

Live in Harmony with Mother Nature



Introduction


The intimate relationship between the mind and the gut has been intuitively known since antiquity; we have all experienced “gut feelings:” the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you received the news of your grandfather’s passing, the “butterflies” you felt before an important job interview, or the premonition you had before making a life-changing decision. However, only recently has modern medical science begun to elucidate the complex physiological mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. While the scientific understanding of this fundamental mind-gut connection is still in its infancy, insights gained from the existing body of research are lending credence to the wisdom of certain ancient practices. The purpose of this article is to explore the scientific understanding of the “second brain” and the “second brain” in the context of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory as well as to offer you three scientifically proven and traditionally practiced ways to nurture the mind-gut connection and use it to cultivate wellness.



The Second Brain According to Modern Science


Before we delve into the science behind the “second brain,” I want to preface this section by saying that the term “second brain” is a bit of a misnomer. The reason for this is twofold. One, the “second brain” commonly refers to the enteric nervous system (ENS), a division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is comprised of 200-600 neurons and controls gastrointestinal “motor functions, local blood flow, mucosal transport and secretions, and modulates immune and endocrine functions” [2]; however, the separation of the ENS and the rest of the peripheral nervous system (PNS) is simply an analytical tool, a product of the reductionist mentality of modern medical science. In reality, the entire nervous system is a single unit, an extension of the brain that insinuates itself into every part of the body (Figure 1). For more information on the nervous system as a single unit, see our article “The Mind-Body Connection.”


Figure 1. The nervous system. [3]


Two, the ENS is only one part of the “second brain.” The “second brain’s” ability to influence psychological phenomena, like mood and decision-making, is equally attributed to the gut microbiome as it is to the ENS, if not more so. The gastrointestinal tract contains over 1.5 kg of bacterial biomass. The gut microbiome contains “ten times as many cells and over 150 times as many genes as the human body.” [4] It can even be considered a “microbial organ,” with many functions such as “maintaining the intestinal barrier, protecting against pathogens, digesting and metabolizing molecules from food and human cells, and regulating host development and immunity.” [4] As illustrated in the following paragraphs, the gut microbiome is functionally interwoven with the ENS and the surrounding host tissue. Thus, for the sake of this article, the “second brain” refers to the entire microbiome gut-brain axis (GBA) (Figure 2).


The microbiome gut-brain axis consists of the bidirectional communication between the CNS and ENS, “linking emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions,” as well as the bidirectional signaling between the microbiota and the GBA by way of “neural, endocrine, immune, and humoral links.” [5] The CNS and, particularly, the “hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis can be activated in response to environmental factors, such as emotion or stress.” [5] Activations of the HPA results in the release of cortisol, a major stress hormone that affects a wide range of systems in the body, including the nervous, digestive, and the immune systems. In parallel, the CNS “communicates along both afferent and efferent autonomic pathways (SNA) with different intestinal targets such as the ENS, muscle layers and gut mucosa, modulating motility, immunity, permeability and secretion of mucus.” [5]


The enteric microbiota interacts bidirectionally with these intestinal targets, “modulating gastrointestinal functions and being itself modulated by brain-gut interactions.” [5] Thus far, research into these interactions has revealed several mechanisms in both directions. Influencing mechanisms from the gut microbiota to the brain include the production, expression, and turnover of neurotransmitters (i.e., serotonin and GABA) and neurotrophic factor (BDNF), protection of the intestinal barrier, modulation of enteric sensory afferents, bacterial metabolites, and mucosal immune regulation; influencing mechanisms from the brain to the gut microbiota include alteration in mucus and biofilm production, gastrointestinal motility and permeability, and immune function. [5] In other words, the gut microbiome is able to affect many aspects of the host’s state of health, including mental-emotional state, digestion, and immunity, and vice versa.


Figure 2. The microbiome gut-brain axis structure. [5] Note: The arrows representing the SNA afferents and efferents appear to be reversed in this diagram.


Furthermore, the metabolic activity of gut microbiota can “regulate gene expression through epigenetic events in host cells.” [6] DNA methylation and histone modifications are epigenetic markers that are partly regulated by enzymes, such as methylases and acetylases, “whose activity depend on host and microbiota metabolites that act as substrates and cofactors for these reactions.” [6] Dysbiosis, which is an imbalance in the gut microbiome, and the reduction of the microbiota diversity can alter the levels of metabolites and nutrients that act as “regulators of DNA methylation and histone modifications either by directly inhibiting enzymes that catalyze the processes or by altering the availability of substrates necessary for the enzymatic reactions.” [6] In short, the gut microbiome affects gene expression in host tissues, and certain dietary and lifestyle habits that harm or alter the gut microbiome may negatively impact this interaction, leading to a variety of epigenetically-manifested diseases, including cancer, metabolic disorders, autism, and autoimmune disease. Conversely, dietary and lifestyle habits that cultivate a diverse and balanced gut microbiome will facilitate normal bodily functions and promote optimal health and wellness. For more information on epigenetics, see our article “3 Ways to Unlock the Healing Power of Epigenetics.”


All in all, modern medical science has revealed that the “second brain” (i.e., the microbiome gut-brain axis) and the balance of the gut microbiome are of central importance to a person’s physical and mental health.



The “Second Brain” in TCM


While the GBA and the gut microbiome have only recently become a new frontier of life sciences, TCM has long recognized the connection between the mind and digestive health (as well as other functional organ systems). The word “mind,” in Chinese, is 神 (Shen). Shen, however, can also be translated to “spirit” and “god.” In TCM, Shen is used in two ways: “First, in a narrow sense, Shen indicates the complex of mental faculties, which are said to ‘reside’ in the Heart. In this sense, the Shen corresponds to the Mind and is specifically related to the Heart. Secondly, in a broad sense, Shen is used to indicate the whole sphere of mental and spiritual aspects of a human being. In this sense, it is not only related to the Heart, but encompasses the mental and spiritual phenomena of all the other [Internal] Organs*” [7] – the Ethereal Soul (魂 Hun), Corporeal Soul (魄 Po), Intellect (意 Yi), Will-Power (志 Zhi) and the Mind (神 Shen) itself. For more information on the five mental-spiritual aspects, see our article “The Mind-Body Connection.”


* Note that the Internal Organs in TCM differ from the conventional understanding of internal organs; the Internal Organs each represent a complex of functions and physiological processes. For example, the Kidneys in TCM may include the functions of the kidneys, adrenal glands, and other organs, as well as a multitude of physiological processes that are involved in water regulation, genetics, bone health, etc. In this article, I will differentiate the TCM Internal Organs from conventional organs by capitalizing the TCM Internal Organs.


Each of the five mental-spiritual aspects is said to “reside” in a Yin Organ, which corresponds to a Yang Organ, and can be linked to the microbiome gut-brain axis through these relationships.


The Intellect (意 Yi)


The Intellect resides in the Spleen, which corresponds to the Stomach. The Spleen and Stomach are primarily involved in digestion and metabolism and are affected by anxiety and overthinking. This is functionally consistent with the microbiome GBA, which can also affect focus and concentration. Notably, dysbiosis of the gut microbiota can result in poor appetite, fatigue, diarrhea, and/or constipation, which mirrors the symptoms of Spleen and Stomach disorders in TCM. In addition, several Chinese herbs and herbal formulas that are traditionally prescribed to treat Spleen and Stomach disorders, such as the Four Gentlemen Decoction (Si Jun Zi Tang), have been shown to restore imbalances in the gut microbiota. [4][8]


The Corporeal Soul (魄 Po)


The Corporeal Soul resides in the Lungs, which corresponds to the Large Intestine. The Lungs, which are primarily involved in breathing, and the Large Intestine, which mirrors the functions of the anatomical large intestine, are related to immunity and are affected by sadness, characteristics mirrored by the microbiome GBA. Also, the Corporeal Soul is said to be responsible for the body’s basic regulatory activities and functions. [9] This is functionally similar to the autonomic nervous system, which includes and is affected by the enteric nervous system.


The Ethereal Soul (魂 Hun)


The Ethereal Soul resides in the Liver, which corresponds to the Gallbladder. The Liver, which primarily regulates the smooth flow of Qi and blood, and the Gallbladder, which mirrors the functions of the anatomical gallbladder, are involved in digestion and affected by stress and anger, characteristics mirrored by the microbiome GBA. Additionally, the Ethereal Soul is said to influence a person’s sense of direction in life, which reflects the microbiome GBA’s involvement in intuition and unconscious decision-making.


The Will-Power (志 Zhi)


The Will-Power resides in the Kidneys, which corresponds to the Bladder. The Kidneys are considered to be the root of life and are primarily involved in water regulation, genetics, and reproduction, and the Bladder mirrors the functions of the anatomical bladder. These Organs are affected by fear. In response to fear, the kidneys contribute to raising the blood pressure (through the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone axis) and the adrenal glands, the function of which is included among those of the Kidneys, release epinephrine and cortisol. The microbiome GBA is also involved in and affected by all of these processes. [10] Furthermore, the microbiome GBA has also been shown to play a critical role in motivation and reward [11], which correlates to the Will-Power.


The Mind (神 Shen)


The Mind resides in the Heart, which corresponds to the Small Intestine. The Heart regulates blood circulation, and the Small Intestine mirrors the functions of the anatomical small intestine; these Organs are affected by joy. Of course, a state of joy that is characterized by a state of healthy contentment is not a source of disease but a beneficial mental state that promotes the smooth-functioning of the Internal Organs and their associated mental faculties. However, a state of joy that occurs suddenly (e.g., when receiving good news unexpectedly) and/or is characterized by excessive excitement and craving can be harmful, manifesting as “palpitations, overexcitability, insomnia, [and] restlessness” [7]. The relationship between the Mind and the Small Intestine directly correlates to the microbiome GBA, which is also affected by and involved in the regulation of heart rate, blood pressure, and excitement.



3 Ways to Nurture the Mind-Gut Connection and Use it to Cultivate Wellness


Now that we have a clearer understanding of the “second brain” in the context of both modern science and TCM, we can use this understanding to implement three scientifically proven and traditionally practiced methods to nurture the mind-gut connection and use it to cultivate wellness. These three methods are centered around creating an optimal environment for the gut microbiome and reinforcing integration between the central and autonomic nervous systems.


1. Enhance Communication from Gut to Brain


As discussed earlier, communication along the microbiome gut-brain axis is bidirectional. Ensuring proper communication in the proximal direction starts with creating a diverse and balanced microbiome by providing it with the proper nutrients, temperature, pH level, and gas content.


While the total bacterial biomass in the gut is fairly consistent across the human population, the composition, gene content, and function of the gut microbiome can vary enormously (as much as 90%) between individuals, depending on a wide variety of factors, including age, environmental exposures (chemical and microbiologic), disease state, genetics, sex, socioeconomic status, geography, pregnancy status, and, of course, diet. [12] Because of this massive variance, it is important to cater your diet to your unique gut microbiome.


Go With Your Gut


So, how do you know which foods are good or bad for your personal gut microbiome? Go with your gut. Pay attention to how your body responds to particular foods. Foods that cause indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, excess gas, nausea, and/or inflammation should be avoided. Even foods that are generally considered to be healthy, such as kale and avocados, can cause problems if you do not have the appropriate gut bacteria to help you digest them. While the specific foods that you should consume and avoid depend on your gut microbiota, certain dietary habits that diversify and nourish your gut microbiome are universally beneficial. These include consuming a balanced diet consisting of a wide variety of leafy greens, fermented foods, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates; these foods will supply you with natural prebiotics and probiotics as well as a balanced nutrient profile. You can also complement your diet with pre- and probiotic supplements. In addition to foods that cause digestive and inflammatory symptoms, you should avoid consuming processed foods, processed sugars, artificial sweeteners, alcohol (although red wine in moderation can be beneficial), and antibiotics (unless medically necessary), all of which can wreak havoc on your gut microbiome. Another healthy dietary habit is “drinking your food and eating your beverages;" this means to consume your meals and beverages slowly, chewing thoroughly and warming fluids in your mouth before swallowing. This will aid in digestion and maintaining an optimal temperature and pH for your gut microbiota.


Correct Imbalances with TCM


TCM is based on a system of balance. When a system is balanced, it is considered to be in a state of health; when a system is unbalanced, it is considered to be in a state of disorder. In TCM, diseases and disorders are categorized according to the Eight Principles and the Internal Organs. The Eight Principles consist of four pairs of opposing categories: Yin/Yang, excess/deficiency, hot/cold, and interior/exterior. The Internal Organs consist of five Yin Organs – Lung, Spleen, Heart, Kidney, and Liver – and six Yang Organs – Large Intestine, Stomach, Small Intestine, Bladder, Triple Burner (三焦, San Jiao), and Gall Bladder. Patients are assessed using the diagnostic methods of inquiring, inspection, auscultation, olfaction, and palpation. Based on the patterns of symptoms observed, TCM practitioners determine the nature of the disorder and which Internal Organs and/or meridians are affected. This diagnostic process is known as Syndrome Differentiation (辨证, Bian Zheng).


Syndromes can be caused by both internal and external “pathogenic factors.” External pathogenic factors, namely Dampness (湿, Shi), Dryness (燥, Zao), Wind (风, Feng), Cold (寒, Han), Fire (火, Huo), and Summer Heat (暑, Shu), originate outside the body and invade the body through the “Exterior.” This can be caused by climatic factors and/or microbial pathogens (e.g., exposure to cold, windy weather can make the body more susceptible to infection from influenza and the common cold). External pathogenic factors must be expelled from the body (e.g., releasing the Exterior and promoting sweating to expel Wind-Cold). In contrast, internal pathogenic factors, such as Qi Deficiency or Stagnation, Blood Deficiency or Stasis, Internal Dampness, Phlegm, Internal Cold, Internal Heat, and Internal Wind, originate from imbalances inside the body (e.g., unhealthy dietary and lifestyle habits causing fatigue and digestive symptoms). Internal pathogenic factors must be resolved by correcting these imbalances (e.g., tonifying Spleen-Qi and correcting dietary and lifestyle habits).


The Syndromes most closely associated with dysbiosis of the gut microbiota are Qi Deficiency or Stagnation, Internal or External Heat, Internal or External Dampness, and Phlegm affecting one or more of the Yin and/or Yang Organs. These Syndromes correlate with the digestive, inflammatory, and/or mental-emotional symptoms caused by dysbiosis of the gut microbiota. For example, Spleen-Qi Deficiency can cause fatigue, indigestion, and a build-up of Dampness and/or Phlegm in the body (manifesting as edema, swelling, brain fog, and/or weight gain). This Syndrome can be addressed by tonifying Spleen-Qi, draining Dampness, and/or resolving Phlegm. Excess Heat in the Large Intestine can cause constipation and inflammation; this Syndrome can be resolved by clearing Heat from the Large Intestine. Oftentimes, multiple Syndromes of External and Internal origin affect multiple Organs, resulting in a complex pattern of symptoms. In these cases, the Syndromes must be differentiated and addressed by a competent TCM practitioner; improper treatment not only will not resolve the Syndromes, but may actually exacerbate the problem. At Rise, we use a variety of modalities, including acupuncture and herbal medicine, to correct imbalances in the body. Please contact us for more information about how we can help you assess and address imbalances in your body and enhance your gut-brain communication.


2. Enhance Communication from Brain to Gut


While ensuring proper communication along the microbiome GBA in the proximal direction starts with creating a diverse and balanced microbiome, in the distal direction, the line of communication begins with reducing stress and reinforcing neural pathways between the brain and the gut through meditation.


Reduce Stress


Stress activates the body’s fight-or-flight response. In this state, the body prepares for imminent danger by foregoing rest-and-digest functions in exchange for prioritizing survival processes, such as elevating heart rate and blood pressure, increasing respiration rate and gas exchange in the lungs, and stimulating the HPA axis to release catecholamines (e.g., epinephrine and norepinephrine) and cortisol. These processes supply the brain and muscles with oxygen- and energy-rich blood, enhancing alertness and physical abilities for a short period. While the fight-or-flight response can be extremely useful in an emergency situation, it can be harmful if it is stimulated too often during everyday life. Unfortunately, the sympathetic nervous system cannot tell the difference between being attacked by a mugger and being behind on rent.


Modern life is full of internal and external stressors that can trigger the fight-or-flight response, affecting a wide range of systems in the body, including the microbiome GBA. Although stress is an unavoidable part of life, there are many strategies, including consuming a balanced diet, practicing mindful breathing, exercising regularly, establishing a natural circadian rhythm, spending time in nature, and cultivating your spirit, that can help you improve your overall physical and mental health and reduce the effects of stress on the body. For a more in-depth exploration of these stress-reducing strategies, see our article “6 Keys to Reduce the Effects of Stress on the Body.”


Reinforce the Mind-Gut Connection

In addition to reducing stress, another important component of enhancing communication from the brain to the gut is reinforcing beneficial neural pathways between the brain and the gut. Both of these components can be achieved through meditative practices. At Rise, our meditation system begins with the foundation of all meditative practices – mindful breathing.


Mindful Breathing


Mindful breathing cultivates awareness of the breath as well as transient thoughts and emotions. During mindful breathing, attention is focused on the breath – its natural rhythm and the sensations felt in the body as the breath ebbs and flows with each exhale and inhale. During mindful breathing, you must breathe naturally and deeply into your abdomen (as opposed to your chest). As you do this, visualize your breath reaching your lower abdomen. This area is your center of mass and known in Chinese as the Lower Dantian (下丹田). This process allows you to connect your Upper Dantian (上丹填), which is located in your head, Middle Dantian (中丹田), which is located at the solar plexus, and Lower Dantian. The three Dantians, which are similar to the yogic concepts of chakras, are said to house the Three Treasures (三宝, San Bao) – Essence (精 Jing), Qi (气), and Mind (神 Shen). Connecting the three Dantian can be thought of as reinforcing signaling pathways along the microbiome GBA. Also, visualize “sending your breath” to various parts of your body and exhaling “negative energies.” Focusing on the breath in this way strengthens other beneficial neural pathways and enhances gas exchange in the lungs. Inevitably, thoughts and emotions come in and out of attention while practicing any meditative exercise. When this happens, observe the stream of consciousness from a detached, almost third-person perspective. In the beginning, you mind find yourself distracted by these thoughts; however, through consistent practice, you will develop the ability to choose to pay attention to or ignore them. This grounds and centers the mind, making you more focused and less susceptible to stress and its accompanying effects on health, including the disruptive effect stress has on your microbiome.


3. Live in Harmony with Your Ecosystem


While enhancing bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain by balancing our internal environments, reducing stress, and engaging in meditative practices is necessary for harnessing the “second brain,” because we do not exist in isolation, living harmoniously with our external environment is equally important. Our interactions with our community and the natural world can affect our physical and mental health and can, by extension, directly or indirectly affect our microbiome gut-brain axis.


Harmonious Interpersonal Relationships


Interpersonal relationships can either be a source of stress or a source of joy in our lives. When they are the former, they activate the stress response, initiating the cascade of harmful processes detailed earlier in this article. Thus, we should always strive to cultivate a harmonious relationship with everyone with whom we interact. However, as we all know, this is easier said than done. Sometimes interpersonal relationships are naturally discordant. In these cases, it can feel natural to “point the finger” at and put the responsibility of reconciliation on the other party, but, because a relationship is, by definition, a two-way street, oftentimes the hostility can be alleviated by looking inward and reexamining ourselves: how might I be contributing to this discord? What can I do to abate it? Am I being overly emotional? This does not mean that we need to concede our position every time we have a disagreement, but rather we should try to understand the other person’s point of view and recognize that having a disagreement does not mean that two people cannot respect and interact cordially with one another. Meditative practices, such as mindful breathing, can help ground and center our minds, developing our self-awareness, detaching our emotional response from these dissonant interactions, enabling us to assess the situation with objectivity, and insulating our microbiome GBAs from the damaging effects of the stress response.


On the other hand, interpersonal relationships can be a tremendous source of joy when they are harmonious. We can cultivate these relationships by striving to be a positive force in the community. This means approaching each interaction with the genuine intention of improving the other party’s day, which will in turn lift our own spirits. This is a key element of spiritual development. Spiritual development means something different to everyone. For us, the spirit is the part of human existence that seeks meaning in life and drives our need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. As such, spiritual development includes any activity that gives life meaning and “fills the soul,” such as practicing religion, building meaningful relationships, and serving the community. This can be as simple as spending more time with friends and family or as involved as starting a community service organization.


While Rise is not a religious or spiritual healing center, we believe that by freeing our patients and clients of physical, mental, and emotional imbalances, we allow them to focus on their spiritual development, whatever that means to them. We also engage in our own spiritual development by striving to be a positive force in our community. To this end, we serve our community at large by promoting healthy lifestyle choices among the general public, educating fellow healthcare providers about acupuncture as an alternative to opioid pain medications, and supporting our homeless community, active military, veterans, and first-responders. We regularly host community service events as well as free seminars and workshops on topics ranging from nutrition to therapeutic meditative exercises; we encourage our patients/clients to participate in these events as doing so will benefit their bodies, minds, and spirits. If you are interested in attending these events, subscribe to our mailing list at the bottom of this page and/or follow us on social media.


Live in Harmony with Mother Nature


The other aspect of our ecosystems is the natural environment in which we live. Thus, living harmoniously with Mother Nature is just as important as cultivating harmonious interpersonal relationships. This means spending more time in nature, adapting our lifestyles to our local climate, seasonal changes, and geography, as well as doing our part to preserve the natural environment.


Spend Time in Nature


Spending time in nature helps reduce stress, which, in turn, will benefit the microbiome GBA. Exposure to naturally green spaces and natural environments have been shown to reduce psychological stress [13]. In TCM, this phenomenon can be explained by the Five Elements color associations; in this philosophy, the color green is associated with the Liver. This means that being surrounded by naturally green spaces is beneficial to the Liver, which is often negatively affected by stress. For the same reason, eating green leafy vegetables is also beneficial to the Liver. Spending time in natural environments also exposes us to fresh air and sunlight. Fresh air is more oxygenated and less polluted than indoor air; therefore, breathing fresh air enhances gas exchange in the lungs. Exposure to sunlight has many health benefits, including improving sleep and reducing stress; it also stimulates the production of vitamin D, which is an important hormone for supporting bone health and enhancing the immune system. Because spending time in nature exposes you to naturally green environments, fresh air, and sunlight, it can be extremely beneficial to practice Zhan Zhuang and other meditative exercises in nature. Because Zhan Zhuang draws inspiration from the rooted and upward-reaching qualities of a tree, the ideal setting for practicing Zhan Zhuang is with your back facing a tall, sturdy tree. Simultaneous exposure to the stress-reducing and sleep-improving effects of natural environments while engaging in mindful breathing and meditative exercise makes practicing Zhan Zhuang in nature a powerful method to reduce stress and enhance the mind-gun connection. For more information on Zhan Zhuang, see our article “The Rise Approach to Health.”


Adapt to the Local Climate, Seasonal Changes, and Geography


In addition to the many health benefits, spending more time in nature also makes us more in tune with our natural environments, which allows us to better adapt our lifestyles to our local climate, seasonal changes, and geography. The climatic and geographic qualities of where we live will heavily influence our lifestyles. For example, the lifestyle of a Seattleite, living in a humid climate at sea level will differ significantly from that of a Denverite, living in an arid climate at high elevation; the Seattleite may benefit from consuming more foods that drain Dampness (e.g., grains, ginger) and exercise at a higher intensity, whereas the Denverite may benefit from consuming more foods that balance Dryness (e.g., pears, eggs) and exercise at a lower intensity. Of course, specific lifestyle choices will also largely depend on the individual’s constitution. It is also important to adapt our lifestyles to seasonal changes. For example, during the transition from winter to spring, the Seattleite should be aware that even though the sun is out, the weather will likely still be cold and windy, and, therefore, should dress in layers and prevent exposure to cold and wind; during this time, he or she should also increase consumption of fresh leafy greens and sprouted grains and seeds (and other foods that are in season), exercise at a higher frequency and intensity, and spend more time outdoors. Adapting our lifestyles to our local climate, seasonal changes, and geography in this way will help us live more harmoniously with our natural environments and, in the process, benefit our microbiome GBA.


Preserve the Natural Environment


The quality of our natural environment greatly impacts our personal health. Pollution at every level negatively affects everything that enters our bodies, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Air pollution contaminates the air we breathe, harming human health as well as the local flora and fauna, including foods that we consume. Water pollution contaminates the water we drink and are damaging to aquatic life. Land pollution, such as soil contamination and deforestation, also contaminates the food we eat and reduces the air quality. Additionally, the damaging effects of all of these forms of pollution are compounded since they are all interrelated. Therefore, it is important for us, in the interest of self-preservation, to do our part to preserve the natural environment. This can be as simple as turning off the lights when we leave a room and taking shorter showers, or it can be as involved as organizing clean-up efforts and growing your own vegetable garden. This also means acquiring our foods from sustainable sources within our means, such as opting for locally grown and raised organic produce or sourcing our foods directly from nature (i.e., foraging, fishing, and hunting), which can be more cost-effective and immerses us in nature. Preserving the natural environment in these ways will provide a healthful external environment, and, by extension, a healthful internal environment for us and future generations, which, in turn, will benefit our microbiome GBA at every level – mind, gut, and microbiome.



TL;DR


Introduction

  • The purpose of this article is to explore the scientific understanding of the “second brain” and the “second brain” in the context of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory as well as to offer you three scientifically proven and traditionally practiced ways to nurture the mind-gut connection and use it to cultivate wellness.

The Second Brain According to Modern Science

  • The “second brain” refers to the entire microbiome gut-brain axis (GBA).

  • The microbiome GBA consists of the bidirectional communication between the central nervous system and enteric nervous system as well as the gut microbiome.

  • The gut microbiome is able to affect many aspects of the host’s state of health including mental-emotional state, digestion, and immunity, and vice versa.

  • The gut microbiome affects gene expression in host tissues, and certain dietary and lifestyle habits that harm or alter the gut microbiome may negatively impact this interaction, leading to a variety of epigenetically-manifested diseases, including cancer, metabolic disorders, autism, and autoimmune disease.

The “Second Brain” in Traditional Chinese Medicine

  • TCM has long recognized the connection between the mind and digestive health (as well as other functional organ systems).

  • The word “mind,” in Chinese, is 神 (Shen), which is used to indicate the whole sphere of mental and spiritual aspects of a human being.

  • Shen encompasses the mental and spiritual phenomena of all the other Internal Organs – the Ethereal Soul (魂 Hun), Corporeal Soul (魄 Po), Intellect (意 Yi), Will-Power (志 Zhi) and the Mind (神 Shen) itself.

  • Each of the five mental-spiritual aspects is said to “reside” in a Yin Organ, which corresponds to a Yang Organ, and can be linked to the microbiome gut-brain axis through these relationships.

3 Ways to Nurture the Mind-Gut Connection and Use it to Cultivate Wellness

  • These three methods are centered around creating an optimal environment for the gut microbiome and reinforcing integration between the central and autonomic nervous systems.

1. Enhance Communication from Gut to Brain

  • Ensuring proper communication in the proximal direction of the microbiome GBA starts with creating a diverse and balanced microbiome by providing it with the proper nutrients, temperature, pH level, and gas content.

Go With Your Gut

  • Pay attention to how your body responds to particular foods. Foods that cause indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, excess gas, nausea, and/or inflammation should be avoided.

  • Dietary habits that diversify and nourish your gut microbiome are universally beneficial.

  • Avoid consuming processed foods, processed sugars, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, and antibiotics (unless medically necessary).

  • “Drink your food and eat your beverages."

Correct Imbalances with TCM

  • TCM is based on a system of balance. When a system is balanced, it is considered to be in a state of health; when a system is unbalanced, it is considered to be in a state of disorder.

  • In TCM, diseases and disorders are categorized according to the Eight Principles and the Internal Organs. This process is called Syndrome Differentiation.

  • Syndromes can be caused by both internal and external “pathogenic factors.

  • External pathogenic factors originate outside the body and invade the body through the “Exterior.”

  • Internal pathogenic factors originate from imbalances inside the body.

  • The Syndromes most closely associated with dysbiosis of the gut microbiota are Qi Deficiency or Stagnation, Internal or External Heat, Internal or External Dampness, and Phlegm affecting one or more of the Yin and/or Yang Organs. These Syndromes correlate with the digestive, inflammatory, and/or mental-emotional symptoms caused by dysbiosis of the gut microbiota.

  • The Syndromes must be differentiated and addressed by a competent TCM practitioner; improper treatment not only will not resolve the Syndromes, but may actually exacerbate the problem.

  • At Rise, we use a variety of modalities, including acupuncture and herbal medicine, to correct imbalances in the body.

2. Enhance Communication from Brain to Gut

  • In the distal direction, enhancing the microbiome GBA begins with reducing stress and reinforcing neural pathways between the brain and the gut through meditation.

Reduce Stress

  • Stress activates the body’s fight-or-flight response.

  • Although stress is an unavoidable part of life, there are many strategies, including consuming a balanced diet, practicing mindful breathing, exercising regularly, establishing a natural circadian rhythm, spending time in nature, and cultivating your spirit, that can help you improve your overall physical and mental health and reduce the effects of stress on the body.

Reinforce the Mind-Gut Connection

  • In addition to reducing stress, another important component of enhancing communication from the brain to the gut is reinforcing beneficial neural pathways between the brain and the gut.

  • Both of these components can be achieved through meditative practices.

  • At Rise, our meditation system begins with the foundation of all meditative practices – mindful breathing.

  • Mindful breathing grounds and centers the mind, making you more focused and less susceptible to stress and its accompanying effects on health, including the disruptive effect stress has on your microbiome.

3. Live in Harmony with Your Ecosystem

  • Because we do not exist in isolation, living harmoniously with our external environment is equally important. Our interactions with our community and the natural world can affect our physical and mental health and can, by extension, directly or indirectly affect our microbiome gut-brain axis.

Harmonious Interpersonal Relationships

  • Interpersonal relationships can either be a source of stress or a source of joy in our lives.

  • Discordant interactions activate the stress response, initiating a cascade of harmful processes. Thus, we should always strive to cultivate a harmonious relationship with everyone with whom we interact.

  • Meditative practices, such as mindful breathing, can help ground and center our minds, developing our self-awareness, detaching our emotional response from these dissonant interactions, enabling us to assess the situation with objectivity, and insulating our microbiome GBAs from the damaging effects of the stress response.

  • We can cultivate harmonious interpersonal relationships by striving to be a positive force in the community. This means approaching each interaction with the genuine intention of improving the other party’s day, which will in turn lift our own spirits.

Live in Harmony with Mother Nature

  • Living harmoniously with Mother Nature is just as important as cultivating harmonious interpersonal relationships.

  • This means spending more time in nature, adapting our lifestyles to our local climate, seasonal changes, and geography, as well as doing our part to preserve the natural environment.


References


[1] Smith, Robert. Our Second Brain. Wall Street International, 24 July 2019, https://wsimag.com/science-and-technology/56125-our-second-brain.


[2] Costa M, Brookes SJH, Hennig GW. Anatomy and physiology of the enteric nervous system. Gut 2000;47:iv15-iv19.


[3] Grey, Alex. Nervous system: Alex Grey. https://www.alexgrey.com/art/paintings/sacred-mirrors/alex_grey_03_nervous_system. Accessed October 27, 2021.


[4] Wang, Rui-Rui PhD; Zhang, Lei MD; Xu, Jing-Juan PhD; Gu, Zhan PhD; Zhang, Li MS; Ji, Guang MD; Liu, Bao-Cheng PhD. Human microbiome brings new insights to traditional Chinese medicine. Journal of Bio-X Research: June 2018 - Volume 1 - Issue 1 - p 41-44 doi: 10.1097/JBR.0000000000000007


[5] Carabotti M, Scirocco A, Maselli MA, Severi C. The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Ann Gastroenterol. 2015;28(2):203-209.


[6] Miro-Blanch Joan, Yanes Oscar. Epigenetic Regulation at the Interplay Between Gut Microbiota and Host Metabolism. Frontiers in Genetics Vol. 10. 2019. Doi: 10.3389/fgene.2019.00638. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fgene.2019.00638.


[7] Maciocia, Giovanni. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1989. Print.


[8] Zhang R, Gao X, Bai H, Ning K. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Gut Microbiome: Their Respective and Concert Effects on Healthcare. Front Pharmacol. 2020;11:538. Published 2020 Apr 22. doi:10.3389/fphar.2020.00538


[9] Zhang, Jiebin. 类经 (Lei Jing). Ren min wei sheng chu ban she. Beijing.1957. Print.


[10] Elaine M. Richards, Jing Li, Bruce R. Stevens, Carl J. Pepine and Mohan K. Raizada. Gut Microbiome and Neuroinflammation in Hypertension. Circulation Research. 2022;130:401–417. 3 Feb 2022. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.121.319816


[11] Wenfei Han, Luis A. Tellez, Matthew H. Perkins, Sara J. Shammah-Lagnado, Guillaume de Lartigue, Ivan E. de Araujo. A Neural Circuit for Gut-Induced Reward. Open Archive. 20 September, 2018. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2018.08.049


[12] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Division on Earth and Life Studies; Board on Life Sciences; Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology; Committee on Advancing Understanding of the Implications of Environmental-Chemical Interactions with the Human Microbiome. Environmental Chemicals, the Human Microbiome, and Health Risk: A Research Strategy. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2017 Dec 29. 2, Microbiome Variation. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK481567/


[13] Ewert A, Chang Y. Levels of Nature and Stress Response. Behav Sci (Basel). 2018;8(5):49. Published 2018 May 17. doi:10.3390/bs8050049

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