What is the migrating motor complex, and how does it affect your health? If you have bloating, gas, constipation, abdominal pain, or a gut that just feels sluggish, your migrating motor complex (MMC) might be at the root of the problem.
Read on to find out all about the MMC.And don’t worry, I’ve got you covered with ways to make it work better!
What is the Migrating Motor Complex?
The Migrating Motor Complex is a series of muscle contractions that work in between your meals. They sweep food residue and bacteria out of your small intestine and into your large intestine.
Do you hear a growling noise in your stomach?
You might think it is your stomach growling from hunger. However it is likely coming from your small intestine. It means the amazing housecleaning system in your gut, your MMC, is at work.
How is the Migrating Motor Complex different from peristalsis?
Peristalsis is the movement in your intestine that pushes food along as it is broken down and absorbed by your body. It moves food through your small intestine, into your large intestine, and eventually out of your body.
The migrating motor complex also has muscle contractions, but it doesn’t push food through your intestines. It works in between your meals, and cleans up leftover bits of indigestible debris and bacteria. Think of it as a giant broom cleaning up your small intestine in preparation for your next meal.
What are the four phases of the Migrating Motor Complex?
Phase 1 of the MMC is a quiet phase. During this time the hormones that control the process are rising, and your digestive system is resting and getting ready for action.
In phase 2 of the MMC your gut has irregular contractions. Hormones levels are still not at their peak. Muscle movements have started but are not really synchronized yet.
Phase 3 of the MMC is the most active time. You have regular muscle contractions, like a giant broom working rhythmically to sweep everything out of your small intestine. This is the time when you might hear gurgling noises, and hunger levels begin to rise again.
During phase 4 of the MMC, you are back to irregular contractions. This is a transition phase that takes you back to the quiet period of phase 1. If you don’t eat anything, the whole process will begin to run again. It will continue to cycle through until you put something in your stomach (1).
Which hormones control your MMC?
The main hormone that controls the migrating motor complex is motilin. Motilin is produced in the cells that line your small intestine. The amount of motilin increases as the MMC runs, and peaks during the third phase when contractions are strongest (2).
We don’t fully understand what makes you produce motilin. Some things that stimulate this hormone are eating foods with fat, and the release of bile from your gallbladder. Stomach contents with a lower pH (more acidic) also increase motilin. There is still a lot of research going on around this hormone (3).
How long does the MMC take to run through a complete cycle?
It can take between 1 ½ and 4 hours for the MMC to complete a cycle. This is different for everyone. It depends on things like what was in the meal you last ate, the health of your vagus nerve, and how much motility (movement) you have in your digestive system (4).
Why is the Migrating Motor Complex important?
Bacteria in the small intestine produce gas. A healthy small intestine does not have many bacteria. This is the part of your digestive system where you absorb most of your nutrients. Ideally, the bacteria live in your large intestine, where they break down those fibers you could not absorb.
If you have too many bacteria in your small intestine they feed on sugars, carbohydrates and indigestible fibers. They produce gas which causes bloating, belching and discomfort in the upper part of your digestive system.
SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, is a condition where the bacteria in your small intestine are out of control. IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, is another condition that can result from all of these microbes being in the wrong place.
The MMC gets rid of undigested fibers, food particles and bacteria in the small intestine. It sweeps them down into the large intestine where they belong.
What can go wrong with the Migrating Motor Complex?
The migrating motor complex is run by a combination of nerves, muscles and hormones. Anything that damages these systems can affect how well the MMC works.
Here are some possible reasons why your MMC is not running properly.
Damaged Vagus Nerve
Your vagus nerve might be damaged or weak. It is the master control that connects your brain stem with the muscles in your digestive system.
Not Enough Motilin
Hormones are made of protein, and motilin is a water soluble hormone. You might not be making hormones efficiently if you are dehydrated or not eating enough protein.
Not Enough Fat In Your Food
Thankfully, we no longer tell people that it is healthy to eat a low fat diet. But if you are restricting fats for some reason, your body may not be getting the signals to produce motilin. Try to include at least a small amount of healthy fats in your meals.
Eating Too Often
When you put food, or even chewing gum or a large amount of liquid into your stomach, the MMC shuts down. Later in this article we will look at specific habits you can change to help your MMC run all the way through a cycle.
Can drinking water stop your MMC?
If you drink a very large glass of water, it stretches the stomach lining. This activates nerve receptors in your stomach and gives them the signal that food is incoming. This may trick your body into shutting down the MMC.
Too Much Stress
Do you feel stressed out at mealtimes? Being in a fight or flight mode moves your energy from the digestive system over to your major muscles. You don’t have the energy to run the rhythmic contractions in the MMC.
Some medications can interfere with digestive hormones and slow down muscles in your digestive system.
Certain Health Conditions
Some health conditions, like Ehlers-Danlos, hypothyroidism, traumatic brain injury or Parkinsons, can affect the muscle movements in your gastrointestinal tract.
How to Improve Your Migrating Motor Complex
Time Your Eating
Wait 3-4 hours in between meals. This gives the migrating motor complex time to run through at least one cycle.
Fast for at least 12 hours overnight. For example, if you eat your evening meal at 7:00 pm, wait until at least 7:00 am to have your breakfast. If you have to eat earlier, shift your dinner earlier the night before.
Who needs to eat more often?
If you are underweight and trying to put on some pounds, you might need to eat more often to get enough calories.
If you can’t go for 3 hours without experiencing shakiness, dizziness, getting hangry, or other symptoms of low blood sugar, you probably need to eat more often. Work with a nutritionist to figure out the right foods to keep your blood sugar under control.
Tone Your Vagus Nerve
Your vagus nerve runs from the brain stem through your neck, and wraps around your heart, lungs, and entire digestive system. A healthy vagus nerve improves the way all of these organs and body systems work.
You can improve the tone of your vagus nerve by vibrating the muscles of your throat. For example, humming, singing, gargling, chanting and laughing all help to tone your vagus nerve.
Activities that shift you from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system also strengthen your vagus nerve.
Try A Prokinetic
Kinetic means relating to motion. A prokinetic is a substance that improves the motion of your digestive system. There are a few different medications out there that act as a prokinetic, but what if you want a natural approach?
Here are some ways support the muscle movements in your digestive tract with foods and botanicals:
- Ginger can help your stomach to empty faster. Use it for gas, nausea, cramping and bloating (5). Drink a glass of ginger tea in between your meals. Be careful with ginger if you are taking blood thinner medications.
- Globe artichoke increases the flow of bile acids in your gut. More bile acids stimulate release of motilin, the MMC hormone. It is easiest to take this as a supplement (6).
- There are quite a few botanicals that improve gut motility. Some of these are magnolia bark (7) , milk thistle, licorice, turmeric, chamomile, lemon balm and caraway (8).
You can drink lemon balm or chamomile tea in between your meals, or use caraway and turmeric as spices in your cooking. Since many of these botanicals react with different medications, it’s best to get professional advice before you begin supplementing with large doses of herbs and spices.
We are all constantly being stressed during the day, from our schedules, our interactions with others, and all the unexpected things that pop up. It helps to have a practice in place that will act as an escape valve, to lower stress before it reaches the boiling point.
Here are some ways that you can lower your stress level throughout the day:
- Post mantras or affirmations where you can read them throughout the day.
- Tapping, also known as Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Sit outside with your bare feet touching the ground, and wiggle your toes.
- Drink a cup of hot tea, slowly.
- Use a breathing app like iBreathe.
- Take a short, brisk walk.
- Find something funny and have a good laugh.
- Splash cold water on your face.
- Sing your favorite song, loudly!
- Download a handout with some deep breathing exercises.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Write down things you are grateful for every day.
- Hug somebody. Spend time with your favorite animal.
If you find it impossible to get a handle on your stress levels, you might need professional help. You could attend yoga classes, get regular massage treatments, or take advantage of other therapies like acupuncture or reiki.
If you have a history of trauma, you might be in a fight or flight state for most of the day. You will need a deeper approach led by a licensed, trauma-informed therapist.
H2: Final Thoughts
The migrating motor complex cleans up your small intestine in between your meals. When it isn’t working properly, you can have a lot of bloating, gas and other uncomfortable symptoms.
When the MMC is working properly, it runs in regular phases that are controlled by the hormone motilin. These phases can be disrupted by a weak vagus nerve, chronic stress, eating too often, poor nutrition and certain medical conditions.
But don’t worry! There are several things you can do to improve how well your MMC works. You can tone your vagus nerve, space out your meals and snacks, manage stress and improve your diet. There are a few different foods and botanicals that strengthen the MMC.
Would you like personalized help with your digestion, and choosing the right foods? Click the link below and let’s talk.