Sleep and the Gut-Brain Axis

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

Digestive health is fundamental to the health of your entire body. According to Chinese Medicine, the Earth element, which includes the Spleen and Stomach, is considered to be the central element in the Five Element system. Earth corresponds to the late Summer as well as to all seasonal transitions. This is why it's especially important to take care of your digestive health during all transitions, seasonal and otherwise.

The health of your digestive system, or gut health, is the foundation of your ability to properly digest and assimilate food, manage stress and sleep well.

Gut health is directly impacted by stress because of a mechanism known as the gut-brain axis, which explains the biochemical signaling between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. 

Under stress, the hypothalamus in the brain signals the autonomic nervous system as well as the pituitary gland to produce stress hormones, including epinephrine and cortisol. The production of these stress hormones shuts down the parasympathetic nervous system, which is related to our ability to rest and to digest.

When the sympathetic nervous system, or our 'fight or flight' response, is active, the parasympathetic nervous system is impeded and therefore both our sleep and digestion are impacted.

You probably know from experience that your thought process, especially when you’re under stress, affects your ability to digest food, but this relationship goes both ways.

In other words, what you eat also impacts your ability to think—and sleep. 

 

Sleep and the Gut-Brain Axis

The bidirectional communication between the brain and central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS) is known as the gut-brain axis (GBA), an information superhighway of chemicals and hormones that provides constant feedback and informs, among other things, our moods, emotions and sleep patterns.

Recent research on the gut-brain axis (GBA) affirms that an unhealthy microbiome in the gut impacts sleep quality and that poor sleep causes changes to the bacterial community in the gut. This is because sleep deprivation produces an imbalance of the stress hormone cortisol.

Too much cortisol can lead to a proliferation of unhealthy bacteria microbiome that can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) problems. GI imbalances increase the potential to develop sleep disorders.

In addition, research has shown that there is 400 times more melatonin in the gut than there is in the pineal gland where melatonin was traditionally thought to be produced. It appears that stress causes changes both in gut bacteria and in neurotransmitter levels (Beckett, 2015).

The rhythms of gut microbes are affected by diet, both the timing of eating and the composition of foods consumed. A healthy diet helps the body generate more beneficial gut microbes thereby helping to reduce inflammation and optimize gut health.

The health of the gut helps determine the health of the brain and therefore our ability to process information, manage stress, balance our emotions, and digest and assimilate food; all of which affect our ability to sleep.

 

Unbalanced Emotions and Sleep

Li Dong-yuan, Founder of the Earth School in Chinese Medicine and one of the Four Great Masters of the Jin-Yuan period in China, believed that disease pathology manifests as a result of damage to postnatal Qi, the energy that we refine and consume through our environment from food and drink. Postnatal Qi is produced by the Spleen and Stomach through the Gu Qi, or energy that's transformed from food. This process occurs in the gut.

Excessive or unbalanced emotions and stress weaken the Spleen and Stomach and therefore the gut. According to Li Dong-yuan, this weakness leads to stagnation of Stomach Qi that eventually turns into heat or Fire that burns the fluids in the body.

We can therefore surmise that heat accumulation in the gut eventually affects the brain and interferes with the harmonious interplay between the gut and brain.

During menopause for example, hormone production decreases and, since damage to the gut inhibits the proper production of melatonin and other hormones necessary to regulate stress and sleep, there is a great tendency for a woman to develop insomnia at this time.

Li believed that weakness in the Spleen and Stomach, or Earth organs, is the foundation of disease and begins with unresolved emotions. He stated that "the downward flowing [of the five yang qi] into their confinement with yin fire in kun earth is always due first to damage done by the five thieves -- joy, anger, sorrow, worry, and fright--followed by stagnation of stomach qi. Finally, overtaxation and dietary irregularity succeed in damaging the original qi" (Li, 2004, 203).

The “five thieves” damage the Spleen and Stomach, leading to stagnation of Stomach Qi. Overwork or overtaxation and poor diet further damage the original qi. This pattern is prominent during major life transitions like menopause during which, as Dr. Christiane Northrup has explained, many women’s unprocessed and unresolved emotions cause insomnia and fatigue to accompany “the enormous changes of midlife” (Northrup, 2012).

This internal heat caused by Qi deficiency is called Yin Fire and flares up into heart. This pattern is common among women going through the menopausal transition where stress along with hormonal changes damage the Spleen and Stomach function.

 

Yin Fire: The Impact of Emotions on Your Health

According to Nei Jing Su Wen, one of the foremost classical Chinese medical texts, seven emotions are considered major internal causes of disease - joy, anger, fear, fright, anxiety, pensiveness and sadness. Li Dong-yuan focused on what he referred to as the “five thieves,” or the emotions of joy, anger, sorrow, pensiveness, and fright, any of which in excess become pathological.

The Earth attribute of Yi, or the mind, has a tendency to worry. Nei Jing Su Wen stated: “Pensiveness harms the spleen” (Unschuld, 2011, 207) and if it is not properly transformed, it leads to obsession.

The attribute of the Heart is known as the spirit, or shen. Over-joy, which includes excessive desires and passions, can overwhelm the Heart and disrupt the shen, since the Heart is the organ that manages joy. Over-joy can transform into anxiety and eventually mania.

Yin Fire causes excessive emotions to aggravate the Heart, which then dumps heat into the Stomach. As the abode of the shen, or spirit, the Heart’s disturbance will affect the circulation of blood and thus the shen, inhibiting one’s ability to sleep restfully.

Wei Qi, which determines the body’s circadian rhythm, forms in the Lungs through the Gu Qi that first enters the Stomach via food and drinks. The circadian rhythm, like the circulation of Wei Qi, dips and rises at different times of the day and can be impacted by the pathological process of Yin Fire.

Sleepiness and sleep propensity are strongly influenced by our circadian clock as indicated by circadian rhythms, most commonly by that of core body temperature. Sleep is most conducive in the temperature minimum phase, but is inhibited in a "wake maintenance zone" before the minimum phase, and is disrupted in a zone following that phase. Different types of insomnia symptoms have been associated with abnormalities of the body temperature rhythm (Lack et al., 2008).

Yin Fire results from Qi deficiency heat caused by poor diet, over taxation, and imbalanced emotions (Li, 2004, 86). Over time, Yin Fire creates an internal heat that can burn up the body’s blood, qi and yin and cause insomnia, especially because its ascending quality affects the Heart and Pericardium. It can also inhibit a decline in core temperature, which is essential for falling asleep (NIH, 2005). 

Internal heat can also arise from Yin deficiency wherein insufficiency of body fluids prevents the body from cooling or tempering the heat, or Yang energy, in the body.

Think of Yin Fire as a process of inflammation that slowly erodes the internal membrane of the intestinal wall. As this membrane barrier breaks down, the gut lining becomes hyper-permeable and leads to the problem of Leaky Gut Syndrome. An abnormally leaky gut allows molecules of partially digested food as well as microbial toxins like bacteria, virus and fungus to flow directly into the bloodstream. These foreign invaders lead to overactive immune responses by the body which can lead to a host of serious diseases such as cancer or chronic degenerative conditions like autoimmune disorders. 

If you’re dealing with chronic inflammation of any kind, it's imperative to clean up the toxic terrain within your gut and heal the intestinal lining.

 

Healing the Gut, Brain and Sleep

One effective way to support the process of healing a leaky gut and build back a healthy microbiome for improved digestion and elimination is through the ingestion of bone broth.

Bone broth is a food source packed with substrates to help bind up the intestinal wall, referred to as the Yin of the Stomach in Chinese Medicine. Yin is substance, so we need substance to heal the body's broken down tissues. Bone broth contains the following substances to repair and restore your muscles, skin, joints and gut health:

  • Protein - supplies the building blocks for growth, including the building of muscles, tissues and new cells.

  • Glycine - an amino acid necessary for healthy DNA and RNA that's essential for properly functioning cells.

  • Collagen - holds together our joints, bones, ligaments and tendons. Needs to be supplemented as it starts to diminish as early as age 20.

  • Chondroitin Sulfate - supports joint health and comfort (especially in combination with glucosamine)

  • Glucosamine - a compound that's involved in the creation of molecules that form cartilage.

  • Hyaluronic Acid - a compound contained in the synovial fluid in our joints that serves as a cushion and lubricant in the joints and other tissues. Hyaluronic acid is also a major component of skin, where it is involved in tissue repair and wound healing.

Furthermore, bone broth comes from slowly cooking down bones to provide different types of collagen depending upon the animal source of the bones. In Chinese Medicine, the bones relate to the Kidney system and the Kidney system also supports the brain. So we can see a correlation with how the regular ingestion of bone broth can be very nutritional to strengthen brain function as well.

Other important supplements that support gut restoration include probiotics and digestive enzymes (contact us to learn more about products we recommend that are available at our clinic).

A healthy diet rich in omega fatty acids, leafy green vegetables and limited complex carbohydrates (especially gluten free) will also help to develop a healthy gut microbiome . 

Self-care is also crucial to heal the digestive system, as the ability to care for oneself and others is a virtue of the Earth element. Learning to cook healthy meals at home, receiving regular Acupuncture treatment and taking time for cultivation practices such as Yoga and Qi Gong will help to regulate both the nervous and digestive systems.

With a calm mind and healthy gut, a good night's sleep will naturally become a more regular part of your life.


References

Beckett, F. (2015). Can’t sleep? Blame your gut bacteria! Retrieved from https://secretsofagoodnightssleep.com/2015/03/03/cant-sleep-blame-your-gut-bacteria/

Lack L.C., Gradisar M., Van Someren E.J., Wright H.R., & Lushington K (2008). The relationship between insomnia and body temperatures. Sleep Medicine Review, 12(4): 307-17.

Li, D.Y. (2004). Treatise on the Spleen & Stomach: A translation of the Pi Wei Lun by Bob Flaws. Boulder, Colorado: Blue Poppy Press.

Northrup, C. (2012). The wisdom of menopause: Creating physical and emotional health during the change. New York: Bantam Books.

Unschuld, P., & Tessenow, H. (2011). Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Dr. Moafi offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. 

Feeling The Heat? The Impact of Chronic Inflammation on your Heart Health

By Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.

Cardiovascular diseases in the form of heart attacks and strokes are two of the top five leading causes of death in the U.S. Assessing how these conditions can be rooted in inflammation is therefore critical. In this article we will examine how any form of chronic inflammation is a stress on the heart and can potentially lead to cardiovascular disease.

In Chinese Medicine, the pathology of Heat is a primary factor of disease in the same way that inflammation is associated with many health problems according to Western medicine.

Pathological heat can be clearly identified because of either an acute infection or inflammation or chronic inflammation in the form of common problems such as allergies, diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, gastritis, and intestinal issues including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or colitis. Furthermore, chronic infections such as Lyme disease, Hepatitis, Epstein Barr and mycoplasma can all involve pathological heat according to Chinese Medicine. 

Inflammatory heat can go unnoticed for months and years brewing slowly in the body like fermentation in a barrel. Heat can combine with Dampness (called Damp Heat) and lurk in latency for a long time before it rears a host of symptoms and pathology.

According to Chinese Medicine, Dampness is a fungal terrain and the root of many chronic health problems that today we associate with inflammation. Damp Heat is commonly created by a diet of processed foods, high in carbohydrates and toxic chemicals. Sugar in any form can induce inflammation as it feeds yeast to support a damp terrain and creates heat through its acidic nature.

Sugar is the perfect Damp Heat toxic bomb for the body. This point is well established medically with the way sugar feeds cancer cells so efficiently.

A Damp Heat fungal terrain can also be attributed to the use of antibiotics, oral corticosteroids and estrogen based drugs such as hormone replacement and birth control pills. It seems practical to say the incredible increase in pharmaceutical drug consumption is a huge factor for creating the toxic Damp Heat environment within the body that Chinese Medicine associates with the creation of chronic degenerative disease, including cardiovascular disorders. (If you'd like to learn more about Dampness and Heat pathologies according to Chinese Medicine, you can read my article here.)

 

It's Just About Summertime 

Summer is the season when the sun kisses our palate with an abundance of fruit. However, even this natural sugar can induce serious health problems if there is a Damp Heat problem. Year round consumption of fruit sugar is a key trigger for a Damp Heat toxic environment in the body.

Historically, fruit was eaten seasonally when it was available, especially in the Summer, when the increase in ingested fruit sugar triggers the body to store fat for Winter energy. But today, with year round access to a variety of fruits, the body's gene stimulation to store fat is a year round event as well. Sugar in all forms, from fruit to breads, cookies, chips, pies, cakes, Big Gulps, ice cream, and let's not forget frozen yogurt, all contribute to obesity as the body is overwhelmed with sugar. 

Blood sugar problems such as diabetes and obesity often go hand-in-hand. 

 

The Critical Link Between Obesity and Chronic Inflammation 

Medical science now recognizes that excess body fat causes continuous low levels of chronic inflammation in the body. The cause is due to inflammatory cells called cytokines that are released by fat cells. The more excess fat is held by the tissues, the greater the systemic inflammation with these cytokines wreaking havoc all over the body as they distribute through the blood and lymphatic circulation. The process of systemic inflammation can therefore be stimulated simply by being overweight. 

In Chinese Medicine, obesity is considered a condition of excess Dampness, which is why it's important to reduce foods that create Dampness in order to lose weight and thereby reduce inflammation in the body.

Dairy or carbohydrate-based food are the big Damp producers. Grains, starchy vegetables, fruit (especially tropical fruits and melons with high glycemic load) and nuts are some of the key foods that create Dampness. If a person has a very swollen tongue or thick tongue coating, this indicates a body burdened by Dampness, which means it is imperative to limit these food groups until the tongue body and coating normalize. The clearing process can take months for some individuals heavily burdened by the condition of Dampness.  

The other consideration in examining the roots of chronic inflammation and cardiovascular disease relates to excess Heat in the body.

People with excess heat can be overweight or excessively skinny. Heat can dry up one's Yin fluids so people who are skinny can be types with excess heat as the heat burns up the body's reserves.

The key indicator of a person with excessive Heat is that they will tend to have a very red tongue body and if it has sections that are bluish, then Blood Stasis has developed as well. Blood that gets too hot thickens and becomes sluggish, and therefore impacts the cardiovascular system. Reducing foods and exposure to toxic environments that cause excessive Heat in the body is required. This can relate to ending a bad marriage or any toxic relationship as well.

Pathological Heat can be generated from over exposure to "dirty electricity" in the form of electromagnetic waves (EMFs) or "dirty" chemicals in the form of anything chemically toxic, be it natural or man-made. Pathological Heat is induced in the body by many common chemicals found in our daily lives. Chemicals ranging from medications, to pesticides, herbicides, cleaning products, facial makeup and hair spray have been associated with many types of inflammatory diseases and cancers.

Many individuals involved in the devastation of war have been exposed to man-made chemicals that have created many forms of chronic degenerative disease never seen before. In the Iraq and Gulf wars and as recent as 2015 in Syria, the United states employed nuclear waste material in the form of DU (depleted uranium) weaponry. This highly radioactive material was the pathological factor of Heat that caused numerous birth defects, Gulf War syndrome, and many cases of cancer among soldiers and civilians who were exposed to these toxic gases. 

The herbicide, Agent Orange, used by the U.S. in the Vietnam War is another example of chemically induced toxic heat that continues to cause many health disorders decades later. Agent Orange was used extensively to burn the dense foliage off of the jungles of Vietnam. Even today medical doctors suggest that the toxic effects of Agent Orange are being felt as some Vietnamese people suffer from an unrecognized syndrome similar to leprosy with their body disintegrating as it eats away at itself. The Guardian reported back in 2003 that 650,000 Vietnamese people suffer from an array of baffling chronic diseases which can be attributed to the toxic exposure to Agent Orange. 

 

How to Cool the Body on a Daily Basis

Limiting our exposure to EMFs and toxic chemicals in any form can have a big impact on preserving our health. Other measures to reduce internal Heat in the body can be even more basic than this. 

It's not just what we eat, but how we cook that influences the temperature of our body. If you ingest a lot of moist or hydrating food created from steaming, soup, broth and juices, your body will tend to cool down.

In the Summer, people tend to barbecue on a regular basis, but this is the type of cooking that induces a lot of Heat. In addition, meat, especially beef, lamb, bison and wild game are very hot natured foods. Barbecuing beef and bison burgers will therefore induce a lot of internal Heat. Add to this meal some alcoholic cocktails followed perhaps with coffee, a sugary dessert and a cigarette and this smoking hot combination will inflame any body burdened with excessive Heat.

Roasting is another cooking method that dries up the Yin of the food and induces a lot of Heat. So take it easy with roasting, baking and barbecuing if you are trying to lower your internal heat and reduce systemic inflammation.

Source: Scientific Animations, Girish Khera (http://www.scientificanimations.com/), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Scientific Animations, Girish Khera (http://www.scientificanimations.com/), via Wikimedia Commons

Heat and Cardiovascular Disease

Arterial plaque, or a condition called atherosclerosis, is a product of excessive heat in the blood system.

A theory that is accepted by many medical professionals is based on the idea that cholesterol levels increase in the body to plug up bleeding arterial vessels that are inflamed. Bad cholesterol is essentially a bandaid for wounding in the vessels. An elevation of LDL can therefore suggest there is a constant wounding in the vessels stimulating the calcification of cholesterol to patch it up. 

According to Chinese Medicine, blood circulation through the vessels is controlled by the Heart and Percardium. The Heart relates to self-love and life's passions and the Pericardium serves as the Heart protector, which stores the unresolved traumas of our lives. From a philosophical point of view, this "wounding of the blood vessels" can be rooted in the process of "self-wounding" resulting from a negative self image, self-hatred, or a lack of forgiveness or acceptance. High LDL cholesterol and rigid arterial calcification can therefore reflect a self wounding process that results from these types of unresolved psychological and emotional factors.

Pathological internal Heat can be created in many ways and stress is a tremendous factor. Simply cultivating a life of peacefulness in one's relationships, environment and in one's heart goes a long way to keeping you cool and unimpaired by the blistering heat found in our every day world. 

Practicing daily Meditation, Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi are very useful tools to return a body and mind from the chaotic state of excess heat to a calm and cool state of peace.

What you cultivate is what you become.

Are you cultivating a chronic state of stress with constant high levels of cortisol flowing through the body or are you cultivating relaxation, ease and strength within a state of calm?

The good news is that it's your choice.

May you have a Cool Summer!


Salvador Cefalu, L.Ac. is the Founder & Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic run by he and his wife, Setareh Moafi, L.Ac. that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine. Salvador is a leading U.S. practitioner of Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare form of non-insertion Acupuncture using Gold & Silver needles. More information at www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com.