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Nerves in Kids: The Brain-Gut Connection

We as parents try our best to buffer our children from stimuli or situations that could cause them undue psychological stress.  We keep an eye out on what they watch on TV, the Internet, what video games they play. We strive to prevent  them from witnessing situations that could emotionally traumatize them or make them fearful, which could lead to nightmares or generalized anxiety.  In short, we do the best we can to protect our children’s minds — their brains — from undue stressors.

But until recently, not a lot of attention was placed in

Western culture on the role that our gastrointestinal systems play on stress levels, emotional health, sleep, and all-around proper brain functioning.

We’ve always known that a situation that produces sudden, extreme fear or distress can result in a person involuntarily vomiting, urinating, or even defecating on the spot.

The brain-gut connection is a very powerful one indeed…

But only in recent years have researchers begun uncovering the precise mechanisms through which our brains and our digestive systems are so strongly interconnected.  This new field of science, known as neurogastroenterology, has made giant leaps in our understanding of the brain-gut connection, and new discoveries continue to be made.

The “Second Brain”

One of the more startling recent discoveries about the enteric nervous system, as the autonomic system that regulates digestion is called, is just how vastly more complex and intricate it is than most of us, even researchers, could have imagined.  Some leading scientists have in fact nicknamed the gut the second brain, due to the many important similarities between it and the brains inside our skulls.

We now know that the human gut is home to scores of neurotransmitters, just like our brains.  Neurotransmitters are organic chemical compounds, manufactured by our bodies, which serve to transmit tiny electric signals — or messages — between the body’s nerve cells, the neurons.

Almost every chemical that is found in the brain and controls the brain, has also been identified in the gut — neurotransmitters, as well as hormones.

In the case of serotonin, the so-called “happy” hormone, which also works as a neurotransmitter, the GI tract actually manufactures 95 percent of all the body’s serotonin, with the brain producing the remaining five percent.

Serotonin is known to greatly influence our overall sense of well-being; it regulates mood and aggression, and it  relieves anxiety and depression. It’s also considered to be a natural sleep aid. So, striving to maintain a healthy GI tract, and optimal serotonin levels in the gut, will promote better emotional health, as well.

Communication between the brain and the gut flows both ways:  neurons in our guts send signals to our brains, and our brains send signals to the gut. The brain and the gut communicate with each other in a continual basis, forever processing external and internal stimuli and responding accordingly as a unit..

Emotions and the Gut

Just like the brain, the GI tract is sensitive to emotions — anger, anxiety, sadness, happiness.  Stomach or intestinal distress can be the physiological cause of emotional anxiety or depression — or it can be the result of these two..

Health practitioners find that a sizable percentage, even a majority, of patients suffering from chronic anxiety and depression will also have problems with their gastrointestinal function.  The factors that disrupt one system may cause trouble for the other, as well.  Likewise, what may cure problems in one system, could be beneficial to the other, too.

Researchers have found that stress and depression can affect the automatic, coordinated peristaltic movements in our bowels that push food along the GI tract toward elimination. If these muscular contractions become too slow, they can cause constipation, inflammation, or make a person more susceptible to a GI tract infection. If peristalsis occurs too fast, it will lead to diarrhea.

Nerves in the colon (the large intestine) are linked to the brain, as well.  Stress and conflict in your child’s life (family  problems, moving, taking tests, or other anxiety-producing situations) can produce intestinal imbalances..Heartburn, abdominal cramps, and loose stools can all be caused by stress.  If you take steps to reduce stress, anxiety or depression in your child, digestive problems will likely improve.

And you could also be preventing future digestive issues in your kid. One prominent physician who teaches physiology, as well as psychiatry, at UCLA, found that up to 70 percent of the patients that he treats for chronic gut disorders had experienced early childhood traumas (such as divorce, chronic illness or parental death).

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

We’ve been hearing more and more about IBS recently. So far, researchers have more questions than answers about this puzzling condition, which is characterized by abdominal pain, and either diarrhea or constipation, for several days each month, over several months.

Scientists believe that IBS may be caused by a combination of physiologic, as well as psychological factors.  Half of all IBS sufferers date the start of their symptoms to a major stressful or traumatic life event. Children with IBS are said to have increased sensitivity within the gut to external stimuli such as stress, as well as pain and bloatedness.

Candidiasis and the Brain-Gut Connection

In no other condition is the direct and strong connection between gut health and brain health more apparent than in excessive candida growth — candidiasis.

Whether from excessive use of antibiotics or steroid-containing products, or from eating a diet that’s too high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, the populations of candida fungus that are normally present in the colon in relatively  small numbers, and that aid digestive processes, can start growing extremely fast, overtaking the digestive system, as it were, gobbling up its nutrients and manufacturing toxins that can affect the entire body.

Candida overgrowth can result in a long list of digestive, as well as cognitive and emotional ailments, including skin rashes, thrush, food allergies, alternating constipation and diarrhea, memory problems, poor concentration, hyperactivity, irritability and anxiety.

Probiotics

In addition to working to minimize the stressors in your child’s life, and insuring that he or she gets enough uninterrupted sleep at night and eats a high-nutrient diet that’s low in sugar and refined carbohydrates, you may want to consider incorporating a daily probiotc supplement into their diet, such as yogurt with live cultures.

In a study with mice published last year, probiotic bacteria were found to reduce anxiety in the mice. Mice that  were fed a solution containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus cultures were found to display fewer “fear response” behaviors than mice that were fed plain broth.

Probiotics also help to keep candida populations in the intestines under control, or bring them back under control..

Thanks to the growing body of research that has come out in recent years, we are now learning better than ever about the importance of keeping a healthy GI tract, as a way to help ensure healthy cognitive function and healthy emotions, whether we are children or adults.

By Lisa Pecos

We as parents try our best to buffer our children from stimuli or situations that could cause them undue psychological stress.  We keep an eye out on what they watch on TV, the Internet, what video games they play. We strive to prevent  them from witnessing situations that could emotionally traumatize them or make them fearful, which could lead to nightmares or generalized anxiety.  In short, we do the best we can to protect our children’s minds — their brains — from undue stressors.

But until recently, not a lot of attention was placed in Western culture on the role that our gastrointestinal systems play on stress levels, emotional health, sleep, and all-around proper brain functioning.

We’ve always known that a situation that produces sudden, extreme fear or distress can result in a person involuntarily vomiting, urinating, or even defecating on the spot.

The brain-gut connection is a very powerful one indeed..

But only in recent years have researchers begun uncovering the precise mechanisms through which our brains and our digestive systems are so strongly interconnected.  This new field of science, known as neurogastroenterology, has made giant leaps in our understanding of the brain-gut connection, and new discoveries continue to be made.

The “Second Brain”

One of the more startling recent discoveries about the enteric nervous system, as the autonomic system that regulates digestion is called, is just how vastly more complex and intricate it is than most of us, even researchers, could have imagined.  Some leading scientists have in fact nicknamed the gut the second brain, due to the many important similarities between it and the brains inside our skulls.

We now know that the human gut is home to scores of neurotransmitters, just like our brains.  Neurotransmitters are organic chemical compounds, manufactured by our bodies, which serve to transmit tiny electric signals — or messages — between the body’s nerve cells, the neurons.

Almost every chemical that is found in the brain and controls the brain, has also been identified in the gut — neurotransmitters, as well as hormones.

In the case of serotonin, the so-called “happy” hormone, which also works as a neurotransmitter, the GI tract actually manufactures 95 percent of all the body’s serotonin, with the brain producing the remaining five percent.

Serotonin is known to greatly influence our overall sense of well-being; it regulates mood and aggression, and it  relieves anxiety and depression. It’s also considered to be a natural sleep aid. So, striving to maintain a healthy GI tract, and optimal serotonin levels in the gut, will promote better emotional health, as well.

Communication between the brain and the gut flows both ways:  neurons in our guts send signals to our brains, and our brains send signals to the gut. The brain and the gut communicate with each other in a continual basis, forever processing external and internal stimuli and responding accordingly as a unit..

Emotions and the Gut

Just like the brain, the GI tract is sensitive to emotions — anger, anxiety, sadness, happiness.  Stomach or intestinal distress can be the physiological cause of emotional anxiety or depression — or it can be the result of these two..

Health practitioners find that a sizable percentage, even a majority, of patients suffering from chronic anxiety and depression will also have problems with their gastrointestinal function.  The factors that disrupt one system may cause trouble for the other, as well.  Likewise, what may cure problems in one system, could be beneficial to the other, too.

Researchers have found that stress and depression can affect the automatic, coordinated peristaltic movements in our bowels that push food along the GI tract toward elimination. If these muscular contractions become too slow, they can cause constipation, inflammation, or make a person more susceptible to a GI tract infection. If peristalsis occurs too fast, it will lead to diarrhea.

Nerves in the colon (the large intestine) are linked to the brain, as well.  Stress and conflict in your child’s life (family  problems, moving, taking tests, or other anxiety-producing situations) can produce intestinal imbalances..Heartburn, abdominal cramps, and loose stools can all be caused by stress.  If you take steps to reduce stress, anxiety or depression in your child, digestive problems will likely improve.

And you could also be preventing future digestive issues in your kid. One prominent physician who teaches physiology, as well as psychiatry, at UCLA, found that up to 70 percent of the patients that he treats for chronic gut disorders had experienced early childhood traumas (such as divorce, chronic illness or parental death).

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

We’ve been hearing more and more about IBS recently. So far, researchers have more questions than answers about this puzzling condition, which is characterized by abdominal pain, and either diarrhea or constipation, for several days each month, over several months.

Scientists believe that IBS may be caused by a combination of physiologic, as well as psychological factors.  Half of all IBS sufferers date the start of their symptoms to a major stressful or traumatic life event. Children with IBS are said to have increased sensitivity within the gut to external stimuli such as stress, as well as pain and bloatedness.

Candidiasis and the Brain-Gut Connection

In no other condition is the direct and strong connection between gut health and brain health more apparent than in excessive candida growth — candidiasis.

Whether from excessive use of antibiotics or steroid-containing products, or from eating a diet that’s too high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, the populations of candida fungus that are normally present in the colon in relatively  small numbers, and that aid digestive processes, can start growing extremely fast, overtaking the digestive system, as it were, gobbling up its nutrients and manufacturing toxins that can affect the entire body.

Candida overgrowth can result in a long list of digestive, as well as cognitive and emotional ailments, including skin rashes, thrush, food allergies, alternating constipation and diarrhea, memory problems, poor concentration, hyperactivity, irritability and anxiety.

Probiotics

In addition to working to minimize the stressors in your child’s life, and insuring that he or she gets enough uninterrupted sleep at night and eats a high-nutrient diet that’s low in sugar and refined carbohydrates, you may want to consider incorporating a daily probiotc supplement into their diet, such as yogurt with live cultures.

In a study with mice published last year, probiotic bacteria were found to reduce anxiety in the mice. Mice that  were fed a solution containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus cultures were found to display fewer “fear response” behaviors than mice that were fed plain broth.

Probiotics also help to keep candida populations in the intestines under control, or bring them back under control..

Thanks to the growing body of research that has come out in recent years, we are now learning better than ever about the importance of keeping a healthy GI tract, as a way to help ensure healthy cognitive function and healthy emotions, whether we are children or adults.

By Lisa Pecos

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