Fixing the nervous system to keep the digestive tract moving

By Dr. Colin O'Brien, ND

 doctor holds small model of human intestines

Constipation can be an extremely common digestive concern. Of course, there are many potential reasons for sluggish bowels and there may even be a ‘quick’ fix such as increasing water intake or fiber.

But what if the underlying issue is actually with the nervous system?

One of the central mechanisms involved in bowel regularity is a portion of the nervous system called the migrating motor complex (MMC).

The MMC is a cyclic motor pattern in the gastrointestinal tract that gently contracts to push food along. Disordered MMC has been found not only in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestinal bowel overgrowth (SIBO) and type 2 diabetes, but even as a result of aging.

While there are many hormones that regulate the MMC, it is chiefly regulated by the vagus nerve and serotonin.

The vagus nerve connects the brain to the digestive tract and is involved in stomach enzyme production, stomach acidity and gut motility. It is the main nerve activated during times of rest.

Serotonin has a complex relationship with the digestive tract as it is produced by both the gut lining and gut bacteria, it is involved in regulating bile activity, and irregular production has been found in IBS sufferers. Perhaps most importantly, serotonin increases the frequency and strength of MMC contractions.

So, what does this all mean? Both vagus nerve stimulation and serotonin regulation are crucial in mending a broken gut-brain connection.

Thankfully, simple lifestyle modifications including deep breathing, yoga, meditation, exercise, humming and laughter can positively influence the vagus nerve.

As for nutritional supplementation, omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics and zinc can heal the vagus nerve, while 5-HTP and vitamin B6 aid in serotonin production.

Finally, herbal extracts like ginger and artichoke root can increase stomach emptying after a meal through a combination of these mechanisms and others. 

Dr. Colin O’Brien ND is a practicing doctor at Sprout Wellness Clinic in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON. He has a strong focus on clinical nutrition and nutritional supplementation within a family medicine context. He continues to fulfill his passion for research, writing and education in his role as the Medical Director for Cyto-Matrix.