July 10, 2019

Is Driving Impacting Your Gut Health?

Driving can be tiresome, but it’s not necessarily the distance traveled that can create fatigue and adversely affect our gut health.

Driving actually involves a series of complex and coordinated movements of our eyes and ears.

You see, when we drive we’re recruiting our visual system to do things like scan our environment for danger, reflexively move from one target to another, and peripherally bring awareness to what’s not directly in front of us. We’re constantly taking in forms of information that then get processed and integrated in the brain.

The inner ear, called the vestibular system, also plays a big role in driving.

The vestibular system is how we orient ourselves to gravity and create meaning to where we are. For instance, being able to identify if we’re upright, right side up, and where you’re going are all attributed to the vestibular system.  It’s a pretty complex make-up of small organs, canals, unique structures, tiny hairs and liquid. When we move our head, these structures receive input and liquid is then moved through the semicircular canals and provides us valuable information of our orientation to the ground.

Poor integration of the inner ear due to not moving the head/neck, too much motion in the head and neck (bungee jumping, roller coaster rides, jumping), head trauma, antibiotic usage (which deteriorates the hairs in the inner ear), high stress and hormone imbalance can lead to unique expressions of discomfort and even poor gut health, which I will explain soon. Also to note, if you ever experience(d) motion sickness, vertigo, nausea or difficulty balancing in lunges, this is mostly due to a poorly integrated vestibular system.

I first want to talk about the semicircular canals of the inner ear, which house “otolithic organs”. The two organs within the inner ear are called the “utricle” and “saccule” organs.

The utricle organ, senses forward motion, think riding in a train, while the saccule organ senses up and down motion (ex. riding in an elevator).

Both of these organs are heavily recruited when we drive.

As we’re steering our car and making turns, our inner ear will help us maintain our head position. It requires stability and reflexive activation from our supporting upper body muscles, so we don’t injure our neck when we make a turn, brake or adjust speeds. This static position, will recruit both of the otolithic organs.

We have our eyes constantly scanning the environment, our ears constantly trying to orient ourselves to gravity and on top of that our body is confined to a static sitting posture, which conflicts entirely with our innate need for movement.

Driving is neurologically demanding. It’s no wonder so many of us feel exhausted after driving!

So what does all this inner ear talk have to do with our gut health?

Well, the vestibular system goes into part of the brain called the insular cortex.

The insular cortex lives under the parietal, temporal and frontal lobes of the brain. It is well “insulated”, hidden under these other lobes, hence the name insular cortex. The insular cortex plays a big role in breathing, helping us feel grounded and stable; it also plays a big role in determining the length, but also the degree of pain we experience.

I have mentioned in previous posts that the nervous system houses movement and sensory maps. The body also has a gut map, which lives in our insular cortex. Think of this gut map, the same way you would think of the movement maps for our body. Clear maps equal pain-free, quality movements (ex. easy digestion and pain free bowel movements). However, blurry maps, due to injury, poor respiration habits, medications can often lead to rigid or painful movements (gas, bloating, etc).

Because the vestibular system feeds into the insular cortex, and pain is analyzed in that area of the brain, pain issues and vestibular issues go hand in hand. A compromised vestibular system can most definitely link to gut disturbances like bloating, indigestion, pain, abdominal cramping, and increased levels of inflammation.

Our brain and body parts are intimately connected. An area that does not move well or lacks activation, has the potential to create a domino effect of symptoms down the road.

The gut and brain are closely connected through the “gut and brain axis”. Via neurotransmitters, the vagus nerve, and gut microbes there exists a pathway that is in constant communication between the gut and brain. This axis can be negatively influenced by injury, poor vestibular function, chronic bouts of dieting and deprivation that include removing entire macronutrients like fats, carbs or essential vitamins found in fruits.

The function and the structure of the brain change with stress.

Essentially longer periods of dieting creates a cascade of stress responses in the body. Not fully rehabbing an injury, having immobile joints, scar tissue, lack of sleep etc. are also big contributors to gut discomfort. A troubled intestine will send signals to the brain with a common output being anxiety, depression, pain, bloat and/or cramping.

The gut also produces an estimated 𝟗𝟎% of our serotonin levels, 𝟗𝟎%!!!!!. Serotonin helps with regulating our mood. With normal levels of serotonin we will feel happier and more at ease, as serotonin plays a key role in managing anxiety and reducing depression.

So when it comes to training our body as a system, keep in mind that training our eyes and ears are integral parts of “training”. Take a look below at an example of saccule organ activation.

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about how to support your gut health through foods, please feel free to download my “Metabolic Cookbook” here.

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