Colorectal Cancer Awareness and The Brain-Gut Connection

healthy gutMarch is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so as the month ends, I felt it appropriate to highlight some of the most important measures you can take to help ensure optimal digestive health, and prevent/lower your risk for this disease. Here is a brief overview of this type of cancer from the National Institute of Health:

"In the US, colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in men, after skin, prostate, and lung cancer. It is also the fourth most common cancer in women, after skin, breast, and lung cancer. The frequency of colorectal cancer varies around the world. It is common in the Western world, and is rare in Asia and Africa. In countries where the people have adopted western diets and fast food the incidence of colorectal cancer is increasing. Research indicates that a healthy diet high in fiber as well as exercise plays a big role in the prevention of this deadly disease." (To learn more about Colorectal Cancer visit the National Institutes of Health’s web page:http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/colon-and-rectal)

Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Colorectal Cancer
  • Be physically active for at least 30 minutes, at least five days a week.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • If you drink alcohol, have no more than one drink a day if you’re a woman or two drinks a day if you’re a man.
  • Eat a high-fiber diet consisting of organic, plant-based foods. Focus on fruits (with skin on) and vegetables (especially cruciferous such as broccoli, cauliflower, etc) to help you get and stay healthy.
  • Eat less red meat and cut out processed meat.
  • Get recommended age appropriate annual colorectal cancer screening with your Primary Care Physician.

As you can see, a large part of the impetus in preventing this disease (as well as most diseases) lies in your nutrition. Not only is a healthy diet essential to physical health, but mental/emotional health as well. How is that possible you ask? Simple - the brain-gut connection. To exlpain further how the food you eat affects the way you think, read the following article from a collegaue of mine, Dr. April Tripp, as she further explains the intrinsic connection between your brain and belly:

The Brain-Gut Connection

The gut is made up of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. The gut also has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system located in the lining these organs. The gut’s nervous system is a network of neurons that send messages, learn, remember, and as the saying goes…produce “gut” feelings! In this article, keeping with the importance of mind and body well-being, we are going to look at the importance of a “healthy gut” to a “healthy mind.”

What you eat impacts what you think

Just a little biology--- it happens that both our gut and our brain originate early in the womb from the same piece of tissue during fetal development. While one part turns into the central nervous system, another part becomes the gut’s enteric nervous system. Then these two nervous systems are connected by the vagus nerve, the longest of all the cranial nerves. The vagus nerve runs from the brain stem through the neck and ends in the abdomen. There's the brain-gut connection. Pretty amazing don’t you think?

So have you ever had a “gut-wrenching” experience? Do certain situations make you “feel nauseous”? Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach? We use these expressions for a reason. The gut is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, happiness—all of these feelings and especially STRESS can trigger symptoms in the gut. The brain has a direct affect on the gut and this connection goes both ways, the gut has a direct affect on the brain. A troubled gut can send messages to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Scientists, like those at the Harvard Medical Center, now know that the body has two brains – one in the skull and a lesser known but vitally important one found in the gut--- when one gets upset the other one does too. Therefore, an unhappy gut can be the CAUSE or the EFFECT of anxiety, stress, or depression in the mind. This is often the case when a person experiences gut upset with no obvious physical cause. It is extremely important when trying to heal an unhealthy gut to eat a healthy diet and to also consider the impact of stress and emotion in the brain. The bottom line here is that the health of your gut has a profound influence upon your total well-being including your brain and how you “think.” What you feed your body impacts the health of your gut. If you are eating processed foods, fast foods, fried foods, foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce, chances are you have an unhealthy gut and are at risk for gastrointestinal illness.

Recently the incidences of gastrointestinal (gut) diseases, including acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s, colorectal cancer, etc. have been on the rise. Some experts believe that soon gastrointestinal diseases will be the number one cause of illness in the U.S. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases reports that most diseases of the gut can be avoided by following a healthy diet and lifestyle. The brain-gut connection is a great example of how the mind and body are connected--what you eat impacts what you think!

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