by Kelly Harrigan
TBI, concussions, and whiplash all affect the normal functioning of the vagus nerve, significantly impacting our digestive motility, resulting in some uncomfortable and gut-wrenching side effects.
The vagus nerve is the key protagonist of our parasympathetic nervous system, which pops us into “rest and digest” mode. This is in direct opposition to the “fight or flight” mantra of the sympathetic nervous system. With TBI, many people find themselves in a predominantly “‘fight or flight” state, which doesn’t allow the body to rest, digest, and repair itself, thus altering the vagus nerve’s work, slowing digestion and impacting gut motility.
In the field of neurogastroenterology, the body’s enteric nervous system (aka your gut’s brain) is responsible for controlling digestion from swallowing to the release of enzymes for food breakdown to blood flow control for nutrient absorption and elimination. The ENS plays a central role in the body’s nervous and immune systems, thus impacting not only digestive disorders, but also with metabolic conditions and mental health because of the two-way communication between the ENS and brain via the body’s vagus nerve.
When your body’s gut motility is slowed or altered, food isn’t processed in a normal manner. This permits bad bacteria to remain in the small intestine too long, running roughshod over good bacteria, effectively creating an overgrowth known as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). Chronic health conditions, age, stress, infections, surgery, prescription medications (including antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors, and narcotics), scar tissue, GI tract blockages, and intestinal injuries can all put you at risk of SIBO and poor gut motility.
SIBO and poor gut motility symptoms include fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, inflammation, dehydration, stomach pain, constipation, bloating, cramps, weight loss, and heartburn or acid reflux. Both SIBO and gut motility directly contribute to brain fog, such as impaired judgment, short term memory issues, concentration difficulties, word finding, and even slurred speech and gait disturbance. Since more than ninety percent of serotonin, the hormone that makes you feel happy, is found in the gut, there’s no doubt that gut imbalances have a neurological effect.
Go with your gut instinct.
Discuss your symptoms with a trusted medical professional. Gut motility symptoms can be vague and overlap with other medical conditions, so it’s important you find an expert in neurogastroenterology or an experienced professional who specializes in digestive disorders. Consulting with an integrative health doctor and a functional nutritionist may be of significant benefit for you. Tracking your symptoms and causal triggers, as well as keeping a food journal and making a list of supplements and vitamins, are helpful to share with your doctor.
Exercise and a healthy diet lay the foundation for good gut health, which in turn supports optimal brain function. Eliminate processed sugar and other trigger foods, alcohol, sodas, and caffeine. Yes, bid adieu to even the gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan cupcakes and soy chai latte (for now).
Breath tests measuring methane and hydrogen, Bravo pH tests, CT and MRI, upper GI series, endoscopy, colonoscopy, and blood work may be requested to determine the root cause of your digestive problems. Treatments and supportive therapies vary based on your specific diagnosis.
Left untreated, poor gut motility and SIBO have been linked to weak bones (osteoporosis), malnutrition, weight loss, anemia, kidney stones, and electrolyte imbalances. The National Institutes of Health stated that digestive disease affects 60 to 70 million Americans, from gallstones to irritable bowel syndrome to Crohn’s disease.
The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates said that “all disease begins in the gut” nearly 2,500 years ago. Fast forward to modern day and we can see the impact that good gut health has on our brain.
Kelly is a single mum, veteran, TBI survivor with a girl child and a Frenchie, oolong tea in hand and humor on hand, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland.