EPISODE #21 WTF IS A VAGUS NERVE? – plus how to test your gut for pathogens & overgrowths”
- Published on: 24 August, 2020
- Last update: 24 August, 2020
THIS WEEK ON WHAT’S THE JUICE PODCAST…
Let’s get real: many of us – myself included! – begin our wellness journeys for one simple reason: we don’t feel well and we don’t know why. This week on What’s the Juice, I bring on Functional Medicine practitioner, Vagus Clinic Founder, and Virgo Sun Dr. Stephanie Canestraro to dive deep – and I mean DEEP – into the mechanics of the microbiome and why good gut health is literally the foundation of everything else.
Just like me, Dr. Stephanie’s path into Functional Medicine began when her health started to decline early into her Chiropractic career. Although she had always been sensitive as a child, things started to really accelerate…I’m talking chunks of hair falling out, waking up with one side of her face drooping, even being told that she was at risk of Multiple Sclerosis. Or as she tells it, her gut just started falling apart. Yikes. It got so bad that she started passing blood – which is when she finally took her healing in her own hands.
Ever since getting COVID from my dad, gut health has been top of mind, so this episode comes at the perfect time. I’m back on my probiotics (daily) and working through some pathogenic overgrowths (including Candida) that may actually be contributing to my recent neck pain! I’m telling you, it’s all frickin’ connected. Luckily, Dr. Stephanie Canestraro is here to bless us with some juicy tips on how to improve and maintain your gut health, as well as how to test for and recognize the tricky pathogens that can opportunistically overgrow given the proper circumstances.
(Hello, stress of 2020!)
Dr. Stephanie is passionate about the gut-brain connection, and since these dual systems are complex and interconnected, there’s really no succinct way to cover all the straight #facts about SIBO, bile salts, your microbiome, and of course your vagus nerve. Not only has she learned how to THRIVE with a sensitive system, she’s here to help us see the crucial connection between gut and literally everything else — so buckle up for a deeply informative episode.
Gut Health 101
It seems so obvious that the body is a whole system when it comes to healing. However… that’s not the case for many allopathic practitioners who are diagnosing based on the superficial symptoms that are being expressed, rather than the root cause. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but seriously, the body operates as one – isn’t it time we treated it as such?
In order to understand how this is all connected, Dr. Stephanie gives us a little “crash course” on the digestive process…
- Digestion begins before you even start putting food in your mouth. When you smell food or start signaling to your bod that it’s time to eat (we’ll talk more about this in a minute), your vagus nerve starts communicating to your stomach to release it’s juices and kickstart that digestive fire. It takes a lot of energy to break down food and this process ensures that your system is ready.
- When your stomach gets the memo that it’s time to eat (either by stimulating your vagus nerve or putting actual food in your mouth), this flips a switch in your gallbladder. Next, a good gush of bile, salts, and bicarbonates is released. This helps neutralize your stomach acid before your digested food hits the small intestines.
- Your small intestine is where you ideally absorb 95% of your nutrients as your food moves through your digestive tract. Since there’s not meant to be much fermentation here, only a few strains of very specific bacteria live in the small intestine (unless you have SIBO, which we’ll get into!)
- The large intestine, however, is where literally pounds of good bacteria live in order to further break things down. Here is where different anti-inflammatory compounds are produced before food moves into your colon and the remaining toxins are released from the body.
Now that you have some insight into the basics of your digestive tract, let’s look at how to maintain a thriving gut ecosystem (and why that’s so important… for example, did you know that 80% of the immune system is in your gut?!)
The truth is that we will always be exposed to food-borne pathogens – after all, we’ve evolved alongside them for thousands of years – so if our body is not functioning optimally, this can quickly lead to overgrowths, sensitivities, and potentially the development of autoimmune disorders later on down the line. It’s up to us to keep infection away by strengthening our systems (and that vagus nerve) enough to support total gut wellness.
How Do You Begin Repairing The Gut?
Obviously, each person is their own unique, bioindividual human, so of course Dr. Stephanie customizes her protocols depending on each patient’s system. However, she recommends the following generalized process to begin re-calibrating your system:
- Start with a GI Map and an Organic Acid test. These tests provide a picture of what’s happening inside the gut and can help practitioners identify issues and pathogens to be addressed or re-balanced.
2. Open up the elimination pathways. Supporting your liver detoxification pathways (both phase I and II) and kidneys (which require the adequate intake of minerals to create osmotic gradients) is key. People that are very symptomatic (think: hand stiffness, achy joints, puffiness, darkness around the eyes) should clear out excess toxins and waste from the body before starting any intense protocol.
3. Optimize stomach acid levels with betaine or HCL. If you’ve been dealing with low stomach acid for a long time (which is what allows these overgrowths in the first place), this can help move things forward temporarily.
4. Address any existing parasite infestations. Dr. Stephanie loves to use a combo of Para1 and my ParaPro in her practice. These protocols are customized based on what she finds in her client’s systems to make sure you’re accurately targeting the right pathogens with the right botanicals (also love that she gives her clients a full-moon ritual to target the parasites!)
5. Design a supportive diet protocol. This should only be done once the body has drained of toxins and can handle whole foods and other supplements to reset the system.
6. Sometimes, re-seeding or inoculating the gut is necessary. (For example, if you were on intense antibiotics and need to rebuild your non-existing gut flora back up.
But how do you know if you need to rebalance your system anyway? It’s SO challenging because like Dr. Stephanie says, imbalances or issues in the digestive tract can manifest as MANY kinds of symptoms. This is why integrative/functional medicine is so amazing – because these gut imbalances that seem localized, are actually a result of a system that isn’t working as a whole.
Here are some signs that you might have want to have a GI Map test done to assess gut health:
- Bad breath
- Acne or skin eruptions
- Chronic swelling/edema
- Autoimmune issues
- Chronic pain
Why are overgrowths so prevalent in our modern world?
After all, these parasites and viruses have always existed. Humans have simply evolved alongside them. I would argue that the modern human is weaker, because our body’s protective defenses are diminished.
Dr. Stephanie illuminated a key aspect to this issue: our mucosal lining! This is our first line of defense in the digestive system. Yet when we get sick or the gut becomes inflamed, it increases the amount of mucus we produce, making it difficult to treat parasites who can embed themselves in this protective lining and create something called ‘biofilms.’
To develop a healthy mucosal lining, try…
- Talking to your practitioner about Mimosa Pudica seed
- Intermittent fasting or simply fasting in between meals. (Your microbiome has higher levels of activity during the day. When you fast, you have a higher amount of bacteria that eat away at the thicker mucosal lining that tends to build up.)
- Actively stimulate your vagus nerve before eating. This downward movement sloughs off the thicker layers as well.
- Anything that supports the liver such as milk thistle or dandelion root.
- Improve your oral biome! Our mouth is a critical access point to our internal systems, so making sure that yours isn’t harboring toxic waste products is mission critical. (PSSST – Try oil pulling to get you started.)
As you can see, there are multiple ways to support your system and many factors that influence the long-term health of the gut.
Now, let’s look at those gnarly overgrowths and how your diet can support you by clearing AND maintaining a healthy digestive tract.
- Limit gluten and other inflammatory foods – if you find that you’re sensitive to gluten and/or other grains, until you get your gut bacteria in check, swap that sourdough loaf for cassava tortillas or other whole foods that offer diversified nutrients.
- Get your healthy carbs from starches and tubers like sweet potatoes, plantains, and whole fruits.
- Focus on nutrient-rich foods such as lean meats and veggies. The Paleo Diet is a great protocol for maintaining gut health.
- Add back in risky or inflammatory foods slowly – one at a time so you can see how the body reacts.
- Be mindful of overfeeding your body certain foods. Cultivate diversity in your diet so you can cultivate diversity in your gut. (A recent study showed 30 different plants a week makes for incredible microbial richness and diversity!)
The Vagus Nerve…WHO IS SHE?
We’re going to be talking a lot about this amazing mechanism today so just in case you don’t know her, the vagus is the longest nerve in the human body. It starts at your brain stem and innervates almost every organ. It supports your parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” side) while helping food move through your body in the most optimal way.
So how can we increase vagal tone and activate this miraculous nerve?
- Activate your gag reflex. (I know, a little weird, but doing this gently while brushing your teeth can really help!)
- Exaggerated gargling is a great way to stimulate your digestion.
- Meditation or go outside and get into nature before dinner.
- Splashing cold water on your face.
- Regular acupuncture can help stimulate your vagus nerve.
- Deep breaths before a meal. Intake air for 5 seconds, hold it for 5 seconds, and release for 5 seconds.
- Humming or singing (my favorite)
In the end, it ALL comes back to being a healthier human. Our bodies were DESIGNED to work for us and it’s our job to support this. So while our diet is a huge piece of the system we want to address, don’t forget that how you move, how much time you spend in nature, and how you breathe (!) are all subtle ways to start shifting your state of imbalance to one of better overall wellness.
Remember fam: your microbiome extends 5 feet in front of you. You literally ARE breathing the air (and bugs) of the top 5 people around you, so the healthier you are, the healthier your community is. Keep in mind that your health isn’t just for you – it’s for all of us.
How juicy is that?!