Our digestive system involves a few different movement patterns that help move things along the different parts of our digestive tract, in a timely manner.
This allows us to digest our food properly, absorb nutrients from our food, and then get rid of any leftover substances and compounds the body doesn't need, through our stool.
In this article, you're going to learn about an important movement pattern called the Migrating Motor Complex.
What is the Migrating Motor Complex?
The migrating motor complex is an electromechanical process that occurs within the smooth muscle of the digestive tract. Often referred to as the "janitor" or "housekeeper" of the gut, the MMC's job is to move along left-over particles and substances in the digestive tract, to be rid of via our stool.
This includes residual particles from food we consumed, dead cells and microorganisms, byproducts and metabolites, etc.
The MMC involves hormones, neurotransmitters, and our nervous system to function properly.
The key thing to note here is that this function only occurs when there is no food in the system. Meaning, it only happens between meals when we aren't eating. This entire process takes approximately 90-120 minutes to complete.
Why is it Important?
The MMC is a very important motility function, that helps to 'clean up the gut' of any residual substances that we don't want hanging around.
When the MMC isn't functioning optimally, these substances are left to hang out in the gut. If there are food particles left to hangout in the digestive tract, the microbes in the gut are given the opportunity to feed on them, and to proliferate and produce excess gas as a byproduct of the fermentation process of these food particles.
This can lead to overgrowth of bacteria in unwanted places (like in the small intestine, in the case of SIBO), as well as uncomfortable bloating and distention.
Likewise, if the MMC is impacted, it could also impact a person's motility, and potentially lead to things like constipation, abdominal pain, and discomfort.
We also want to make sure that any pathogens, bacteria, metabolites, etc., that we don't want to hang around in the gut, are cleared out efficiently!
How to Support the Migrating Motor Complex:
1. Space your meals (and snacks) 3-4 hours apart
Meal spacing is one of the best ways to improve your migrating motor complex and allow it the time to do its job. As you just learned above, it can take approx. 90-120 minutes for the MMC to occur. Consider that it can take upwards of 2 hours to digest a meal (especially a meal higher in protein content), plus allowing for 1.5-2 hours for the MMC to do its "housekeeping," and we've got 3-4 hours between meals to allow this to occur! This doesn't just go for "meals." This includes intake of any food. If you currently experience bloating, distention, constipation, or perhaps even have SIBO, trying to space your meals in a way that works for you, and following this suggestion, can be really helpful.
2. Stress Management (Love on Your Nervous System)
The nervous system plays a big role in how the MMC is able to function. When the stress response is activated, and we are in a sympathetic state (fight-or-flight mode), our digestive processes can become impacted. This includes the migrating motor complex! Practice stress management techniques, and explore techniques to down-regulate your nervous system.
Here are a few recommendations you can try out:
breathing practices like the 4x4 breath, or the 4-7-8 breath
get out in nature for a walk
call a loved one whom you feel safe with
take a cold shower
dance to your favourite song
try gratitude journaling
cuddle a loved one, or your furry friend
make time for a hobby you love
3. Eat Mindfully
Eating mindfully is an important practice for your overall digestive function, but also for our migrating motor complex to function optimally.
Here are a few ways that you can eat more mindfully:
Chew your food thoroughly, until solid food is almost liquified (think baby food consistency). Our teeth are the only mechanical part of our digestion, and are there to be used to their full potential! Chewing properly takes the burden of the rest of the digestive tract to break down food, and can aid in digestion.
Take a few deep breaths before meals to settle into your rest-and-digest state. We digest best here!
Eat your meals without distractions. This means without scrolling through instagram, watching the 6 o'clock news, or perusing youtube. Focusing on your meal will help you eat more mindfully, digest better, and be better able to listen to how your body is feeling.
4. Support Motility with Herbs and Supplements
There are specific nutrients and supplement formulas that can help support the migrating motor complex, and motility.
I always recommend taking with your practitioner or primary health care provider prior to trying supplementation, as there may be contraindications, or they may be inappropriate for you.
That being said, here are a few you can inquire about:
Ginger is a natural "prokinetic" meaning it helps to improve gastric motility. This can be enjoyed in whole-food form, as a tea, or in supplemental form for more targeted, therapeutic support.
A prokinetic formula. Prokinetic formulas often involve natural herbs like ginger, as well as carminative herbs like chamomile and peppermint, and the amino acid 5-HTP. These formulas can help to restore MCC function and motility.
Melatonin is known to be involved in the regulation of motility (and the MMC), and could help to restore MMC function.
If you're struggling with bloating, distention, constipation, or have a known case of SIBO, then supporting your migrating motor complex can be really helpful to restore function.