Have you ever noticed how your state of mind can impact how you feel physically? When you’re happy you feel great and when you’re stressed or emotionally distraught, your stomach gets upset or you feel physically exhausted.
In Ayurveda the health of our mind plays a powerful role in the health of our body. That’s because Ayurveda approaches the mind and body as a whole—there is no part of our mind and body that functions independently of the other. Whatever happens in one part of the mind-body unit impacts our whole system. It’s a beautiful system that begins with the acceptance that our mental and emotional health is inseparable from our physical health and we start by acknowledging this inner-connectedness.
Modern medicine is just beginning to grasp this concept, most notably in the research on the impact the gut microbiome has on our overall health, particularly the brain. The term gut-brain connection is often used to explain the intricate relationship between the digestive system and the brain, but this language is limiting because of the assumption that the gut and brain are two different functional parts. In reality, the gut and brain are ONE functional unit.
When we look at a human being as only a body, it may be difficult to see the gut, which is located way down around our naval, as part of the same functional complex as the brain, way up there in our head. But in Ayurveda, the physical body only reflects one aspect of the human body. The physical body is the densest aspect of who we are, which is why we can perceive it so easily through our senses. But there are other aspects of the human body that exert a direct biological impact on the physical body, even though we cannot feel or see them. And even if you may not know it, you are certainly aware of these other bio-fields, such as the mental body for example, which is the source of all thoughts and emotions.
The Five Sheaths—Layers of Being
In fact, the human body is said to be composed of five bodies that lay upon each other which are known as the five koshas (or the five sheaths): Physical Body, Energy Body, Mental Body, Wisdom Body and Bliss Body.
Each of these five bodies exists as different energy fields that communicate with one another. The subtler the energy field, the more powerful the impact it has on the other bodies. The Bliss Body, which is the subtlest of all the bodies, is often experienced during states of deep meditation and has the greatest impact on all the other sheaths covering it. When we compare the influence of the Physical Body verses the Mental Body, which is the source of all our thoughts and emotions, the Mental Body carries much more influence on our overall health. This is why, as modern research shows, stress impacts our physical health so powerfully.
There are areas where these subtler bodies intersect with our physical body to become a functional unit, known as the chakra system. The Mental Body intersects with the digestive system, through an energy channel called the solar plexus chakra, to become an inseparable functional unit. From this higher organizational perspective of the human body, Ayurveda does not say that there is a gut-brain connection because the gut and brain are one functional energy unit operating together in unison.
What Does This Mean If You Have Mental Health Concerns or Gut Issues?
In Ayurveda, agni means fire and it is critically important to our health. Agni can be found in every cell, tissue and system in our body and acts as a gatekeeper monitoring what is allowed into our cells and what is carried out as waste. Our main digestive fire governs our ability to digest and process foods and toxins, as well as process our emotions and experiences. Agni supports so many facets of our physical and mental health, that when it is impaired or out of balance, it causes ama (a Sanskrit term meaning something undigested or a toxin) to be formed and accumulated in our mind and body, which can lead to mental and physical illness and disease.
To resolve either issue—mental or digestive—you need to address both the mind and the gut simultaneously. When you have toxins in your gut, it shows up in your thought patterns, which can lead to conditions such as anxiety, anger or depression. And when you have chronic negative thought patterns, it influences your gut health, which can show up as IBS, gastric reflux or constipation. There’s evidence of the functional gut-brain unit when a patient is releasing past trauma. During the process of trauma release, patients will often experience acute gut symptoms due to the involvement of the vagus nerve, which is part of the autonomic nervous system. Conversely, a patient with chronic gut issues will feel a sudden relief from their mental health symptoms when digestion improves due to the impact of the microbiome on brain health.
I’ve had countless patients with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or other chronic gut issues where the cause of their digestive problems were rooted in unprocessed trauma. One patient had a 20-year-diagnosis of chronic giardiasis and SIBO. She did everything imaginable to heal her gut over the years with some partial improvement in her digestive health. It was evident that there was significant unprocessed trauma from her father abandoning her in early childhood. She just never thought to address the trauma as part of her gut issue.
Since she already had done so much for her digestive health, we focused predominantly on releasing the unresolved trauma through herbs, meditation, sound healing and a psychological therapy known as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Within a few months her gut issues began to spontaneously resolve and more importantly a life-long subconscious pattern of mental anguish finally lifted.
Seeds of Wisdom
When the gut and brain harmoniously function as one unit, it begins to unlock the secrets to longevity. The beauty of accepting the inseparable unit of the gut and brain is that as you manage both simultaneously, you are bringing into balance the two most important systems in the body, which govern your entire health landscape. But when you only address one system—either the gut or the brain—you can spend years traveling down a singular path with only partial improvement because the other functional part of the unit has been ignored.
In Ayurveda the ultimate energy reserve of the body and mind is known as ojas. Ojas is the secret to longevity and it comes from a harmoniously functioning gut-brain unit.
The ancient masters understood the complexities of the organization of the human being on levels beyond just the physical body. From their wisdom, systems such as Ayurveda arose to give humanity a deeper look into its true reality, unlocking the secrets to longevity and peace. The functional unit of the gut and brain is one such priceless insight.
Ayurveda heals the gut and the brain through a lifestyle focus of diet, sleep, exercise, mindfulness and meditation. This has been the basis of Ayurveda for over 5,000 years. It incorporates food, herbs, massage, introspection and lifestyle choices to help restore health.