We chatted with kenckoPRO ambassador and acupuncturist Snow Xia, owner of Hima Acupuncture in NYC, to learn more about stress, gut health, the interconnected relationship between the two, and the role of nutrition in mental health.
Snow Xia is a licensed acupuncturist in New York City and the owner of Hima Acupuncture, a boutique practice with offices in Flatiron and Williamsburg, where she specializes in women’s health, digestive disorders, and chronic pain.
Snow has been recognized as one of the top acupuncturists in New York City for three consecutive years, and since establishing her practice, she has successfully helped hundreds of clients reclaim their health. She’s passionate about helping busy New Yorkers take control of their own health while living ambitious lives. And as a kenckoPRO ambassador, Snow also loves to help others better understand the crucial – and cyclical – connection between your gut and your overall feeling of wellness.
We chatted with Snow about what she sees most frequently with her patients, the brain-gut axis, and ways we can improve our physical and mental wellbeing at the same time.
You work with a lot of people with digestive issues – what’s a common thread you encounter with these patients?
In my practice, I see a lot of patients who seek help with digestive disorders, ranging from symptoms of constipation, acid reflux, constant bloating and gas, to diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s Disease, and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). Often, they also suffer from emotional disorders, and lead a very stressful lifestyle. I try to explain to them the brain-gut connection, and how by improving their lifestyle and managing stress levels, there will be positive improvements in the digestive symptoms they are experiencing.
What else can you tell us about the connection between our brain and our gut?
The brain-gut axis is the bidirectional communication between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The gut microbiome has a symbiotic relationship with our metabolism, nervous system, immune system and cardiovascular system. Have you ever felt a knot in your stomach when you get nervous? Or heard the saying “trust your gut?” Recent studies on the brain-gut axis have shown that our gut acts as something of a “second brain.”
The physiological connection in this axis is modulated by the vagus-nerve. As the longest nerve in the body, the vagus nerve sends information from the brain to the gut, and vice versa. The vagus nerve is also a major part of our parasympathetic nervous system, which controls our mood, digestion, heart rate and sleep.
In a study on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Cronh’s Disease patients, subjects exhibited a significantly reduced vagus nerve function with higher stress and inflammation markers. This argues for the involvement of the brain-gut axis, and the relevance of vagus nerve reinforcement as interventions for such diseases.
There is also a hormonal brain-gut connection via neurotransmitters. “Feel-good” hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), are mostly produced in the gut, and are responsible for our happiness, sense of wellbeing, and decreasing feelings of anxiety and stress.
Additionally, the brain-gut axis supports the immune pathway. In fact, 70-80% of our immune system exists in the gut. In a healthy individual, the healthy, diverse gut microbiome promotes the development of immune cells and modulates immune responses, fights inflammation and promotes autoimmune tolerance. Conversely, a healthy immune system allows a diverse gut microbiome to flourish.
Learn five fun facts about the gut here and how food affects your mood here.
How can we optimize the health of our brain-gut axis, since it plays such a crucial role in our overall well being?
For the brain-gut axis to function properly, we need to promote a conducive environment for the nervous system to achieve homeostasis. In my practice, I always talk about the five major pillars of health:
- A balanced diet: Try to prioritize a whole food diet consisting of lean proteins, healthy fats, high fiber, with tons of fruits and vegetables. Eating at regular times is also crucial for a healthy gut. I have seen too many people developing gastritis and other digestive issues due to irregular eating schedules.
- Daily bowel movements: Another thing that people tend to overlook is having regular bowel movements. Daily bowel movement is crucial for our overall digestive health. Consuming high-fiber foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, in combination with sufficient fluid intake (at least eight cups of water per day), are essential for proper digestion and keeping us regular.
- Regular exercise: In addition, movement plays a major role. Regular exercise will help promote better circulation, metabolism, strengthen the immune system, and regulate hormone levels and the nervous system, all of which will optimize the brain-gut axis. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of physical activity per week, which is 30 minutes, five days a week.
- Quality sleep: Good quality sleep is essential for the body to recuperate and to regulate the nervous system. The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Research has found that the accumulation of sleep debt has a detrimental impact on our overall health, and may even shorten our life span.
- Stress management: Managing stress is yet another essential piece of the puzzle to optimize the brain-gut connection. High stress is associated with high cortisol levels, which can contribute to weight gain, increased inflammatory response and poor sleep.
Speaking of stress, what are some effective ways to mitigate it?
Many of my patients use regular acupuncture “tune-up” treatments to help them manage stress and calm the nervous system. I also give them ear-seeds to take home, in which they can participate in their own healing by applying acupressure on specific ear points to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
At home, I suggest people set an alarm to take 10-minute breaks throughout the work day; to stretch, to meditate, practice yoga, play with their dog, or simply make a cup of tea – basically any tiny ritual that brings one a sense of calm to help the nervous system relax a little. Having some go-to anxiety relievers can be very helpful.
I know I already mentioned it, but regular exercise is also an effective way to help stimulate endorphin and serotonin production and regulate our mood. Everyone’s body is unique, so be mindful to build up a routine that works for you. Many people are not aware of this, but overly-intense exercise regimes can actually act as a stress factor on the body, and increase cortisol levels.
A healthy dose of sun exposure is also important to lift our moods and mitigate stress. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is rather common in the fall and winter. Research suggests that SAD may be triggered by reduced sun exposure in the winter. Without sun exposure, vitamin D production and hence serotonin synthesis are significantly decreased, which can play a significant role in making people feel depressed.
At the end of the day, optimizing our health is all about consistency. Sometimes, people come for an acupuncture treatment expecting a quick fix, or to undo the damage they have put their mental and physical bodies through over the course of many years. Once they leave the office, many resume unhealthy lifestyles and push their body to the limit. If we want to be in control of our wellbeing, we need to learn to listen to our bodies to become in tune to what our bodies need.
We’re a nutrition-focused company, so we have to ask: what are some of your favorite gut-friendly recipes?
For the summer, my favorite is this easy-to-make dill yogurt soup. This well-balanced recipe is cooling and light. Moreover, you’re getting a healthy dose of probiotics from the yogurt to replenish your gut flora.
For the cooler seasons, I make this chicken mushroom congee a lot. This is a nutritious, easy-to-digest, one pot meal. Congee is like the Chinese version of oatmeal. It is characterized by having a high water to grain ratio and simmered at low heat for hours. The prolonged cooking time breaks down the starch in the process and allows for easier digestion. Cooking at low heat also better preserves the nutrients in the ingredients. Furthermore, the silky texture is highly hydrating for the body.
And for breakfast, I love kencko’s yogurt parfait recipe (shared below). Yogurt is a probiotic food, meaning it adds beneficial bacteria to the gut. This recipe also includes great prebiotic foods such as oats, which provide beta-glucan fiber and resistant starch, as well as berries, which have been found to have prebiotic properties, too, as they fuel the growth of good bacteria. Prebiotic fiber supports a healthy gut by feeding the beneficial bacteria residing within us, and stimulating their reproduction as well as health-promoting by-products known as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).
Gut-friendly kencko yogurt parfait
- ½ cup of fresh berries
- 1 cup unsweetened, plain yogurt with live cultures (either dairy or plant-based)
- 1 packet kencko - try ambers, purples, reds, rubies, or yellows
- 2-3 tbsp toasted oats or low-sugar whole grain granola
- Toppings of choice: chopped nuts, cacao nibs, toasted coconut
- Swirl the kencko powder through the yogurt until well mixed.
- Fill a glass with alternating layers of berries, yogurt and oats/granola. You can refrigerate this overnight if you’re a forward planner.
- Add toppings and grab a spoon!
For other gut-friendly recipes, check out this article with tasty breakfast recipes that support a healthy microbiome.