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Targeting the "Gut Brain" for Digestive Health
By Kelly C. Heim, Ph.D.

The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a complex organ system that is the conduit of all dietary influences on health and disease. Widely-recognized mainstays of GI support such as probiotics, prebiotics, and digestive enzymes can be highly effective in broad therapeutic contexts. However, few modalities specifically target one of the most critical aspects of digestion—mechanical function, or motility.

GI motility refers to the movement of food through the entire GI tract. Also known as peristalsis, this involuntary muscular activity is mediated by a specialized network of over 100 million neurons residing in the lining of the stomach and intestines, collectively known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), or "gut brain." The ENS orchestrates peristalsis and other wavelike rhythms critical for digestion, absorption, and abdominal comfort. Although the ENS is influenced by the brain, it functions independently as a branch of the autonomic nervous system. The neurons within the ENS communicate using the same neurotransmitters found in the brain; however, the roles of GI neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin and acetylcholine, play unique roles to control the muscles that line the stomach, small intestine, and colon. When neurotransmission within the ENS is disrupted, digestion is either too fast or too slow.*

Serotonin, Melatonin and Gut Motility

Over 95% of the body's total serotonin is made by the lining of the intestines. Proper levels of gut serotonin maintain a coordinated pattern of motility. This is due to activation of serotonin type-4 (5HT4) receptors. When activated by serotonin, 5HT4 receptors stimulate another neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is the most critical mediator of healthy mechanical digestion. 5-HTP promotes gut motility through supporting serotonin and acetylcholine activity.*

It is desirable to strike a balance in serotonin-targeted therapies. Healthy motility depends on 5HT4 dominance over another serotonin receptor known as 5HT3. Cytokines, chemical messengers that underlie inflammatory balance, can activate 5HT3. Ginger, which modulates 5HT3 activity, supports the balance. Accordingly, ginger promotes normal clearing of the stomach and upper GI comfort in clinical trials. While ginger supports motility under conditions of normal inflammatory balance, it can maintain slower patterns in the colon in the presence of stress-related chemical messengers. This may explain its broad spectrum of applications.*
Melatonin plays multiple roles in the digestive system that are independent of its well-known niche in sleep support. The GI tract is one of the most significant sources of melatonin, producing levels up to 400 times higher than amounts found in the pineal gland. While supplemental 5-HTP promotes motility, supplemental melatonin maintains slower motility, particularly in the colon. In addition, clinical research shows that melatonin has general protective effects on the lining of both the upper and lower GI tract.*

Botanicals: Inflammatory Balance and Bowel Motility


Inflammatory balance and lower GI motility are two interrelated etiologic factors that should be equally considered in constructing a protocol. Maintaining healthy inflammatory balance facilitates normal mechanical rhythms in the lower GI tract. Cytokines are targets of melatonin and several botanicals. Boswellia serrata extract exerts favorable effects on these signals. AKBA, a major component of Boswellia, provides significant support for intestinal wall integrity in animal models. A unique role of Boswellia in functional gastroenterology also stems from its capacity to maintain healthy activity of acetylcholine. Like Boswellia, polyphenols such as curcumin and quercetin exhibit dual-support for motility and cytokine activity. Recent studies have demonstrated efficacy of curcuminoids in experimental models of gut immunity and inflammatory balance. Flavonoids such as quercetin also maintain healthy contractile rhythms in the ileum and colon. Quercetin is unique in that it exerts direct effects on acetylcholine.*


Strategic support for GI motility

Two innovative products from Pure Encapsulations specifically target the "gut brain." MotilPro, which helps those who experience slow motility, combines 5-HTP with ginger rhizome to support serotonin and acetylcholine in the GI tract, promoting gastric emptying, intestinal motility, and abdominal comfort while maintaining a healthy balance of 5HT4 and 5HT3. MotilPro also provides acetyl L-carnitine, which supports neuronal health. MotilCalm, which helps those who experience fast motility, is a melatonin-based formula providing Boswellia AKBA, quercetin, and curcumin. This product targets the lower GI tract, helping to maintain inflammatory balance and to slow contractile activity of the colon.*

Because substantial overlap exists between motility, inflammatory balance, and abdominal sensation, targeting the neuronal pathways that coordinate GI motility is an integral component of digestive support. Since diverse biochemical and psychological factors converge on the "gut brain" on a continual basis, supporting gut health demands a multifocal approach. MotilPro or MotilCalm may be integrated into a comprehensive protocol to fill a substantial gap in the digestive therapeutic arsenal beyond probiotics and enzymes alone.*


* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.


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