We have so many phrases in the English language that talk about the connection between the mind, our emotions and our gut – such as “gut feeling”, “gut wrenching”, “butterflies in the stomach” etc There is a good reason for this. Our brain/mind and our emotional reactions are hugely linked to the gut. We even classify a separate “brain” in this part of the body, known as the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is a network of neurons that govern our digestive function. However, when you realise that this area is also rich in neurotransmitters, many of which are also found in the brain (such as serotonin) then it’s no wonder that the brain in the gut does much more than simply handle digestion.
Furthermore, this area is connected to our solar plexus chakra, the chakra that holds our personal power and momentum to move forward in life and take action to fulfil our wishes and desires.
Triggers from the Brain
Physiologically our brain triggers many important reactions in the gut, such as stimulating the release of gastric juices for digestion. Imagine you are hungry and you see an advert for a juicy (…. you fill in the blank), and your mouth starts watering. This is due to the signal from the brain that kicks your digestive system into action long before you even eat a mouthful.
But what about all those emotions that trigger reactions in the gut? We all know them well. Feeling nervous, anxious, fearful or excited, all create corresponding reactions in the intestines. Stress here is the overall factor in many of the emotions – and from my point of view can be linked to feelings of disempowerment, which is very much associated with the solar plexus. When a person is severely stressed, there can be huge consequences in their gastrointestinal health, not least because being super stressed actually shuts down digestion. But other factors are important too with stress, such as the effects it has on inflammation in the gut, gut motility (constipation and diarrhoea are hugely linked to stress), how it effects the delicate lining of the intestines and the bacterial balance that plays a huge role in health as we are discovering more and more.
Given the levels of stress many people face on a daily basis, is it any wonder that so many people experience chronic stomach problems, such as IBS? In all honestly, I’m often surprised when I meet someone who doesn’t have any gut health issues – it’s pretty rare. Ok, people might think they don’t, but dig a little deeper and usually you pick up on symptoms related to gastric health – it’s just that people become so accustomed to them that they no longer even recognise that the symptoms aren’t normal.
Triggers from the Gut
But what about the other way round? The connection goes both ways, and a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can also be the cause of anxiety, stress and depression. Having stomach pain on a daily basis is enough to make anyone feel pretty anxious – so the whole thing can become a bit of a chicken or egg situation.
However, there are some very real factors that can occur in the gut that create imbalance in the brain. One big one to consider is the presence of food intolerances. Another is the presence of pathogenic micro-organisms that can take up residence in gut. The imbalance created in the gut can have a direct impact on the neurotransmitter activity in the brain as well as other parts of the body.
Functional GI Disorders
These disorders of the brain-gut have been classed as “Functional GI Disorders”. They are some of the most commonly seen disorders in the general population, and account for around 40% of the GI problems seen by doctors and therapists. Basically the term is used to describe a group of disorders classified by their symptoms, such as motility disturbance, hypersensitivity in the gut, altered gut microflora, altered immunity (remember, 60-70 percent of our immune system is in our gut) and altered central nervous system activity. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) comes under this classification.
The problem in the past has been that determining symptoms as brain-gut related, they have in the past been dismissed as psychosomatic. Whilst from an energetic point of view, of course this can be seen as true – a weakened sense of personal power, will and momentum that effects the solar plexus will lead to problems in this area. And even from a more mainstream point of view, psychological factors are well-known to influence gut health. But the dismissal of these factors as psychosomatic (often code for “all in your head”) can be pretty detrimental, given that the symptoms are very real. Yes, psychological factors influence the condition, but this is not the same as something being “in your head”. Plus, can anyone tell me a disease where the psychological status of someone does not affect the physical expression of a condition? Stress impacts pretty much any symptom or disease you can think of. Furthermore, research shows that people with functional GI disorders perceive pain more acutely than other people, because their brains have trouble regulating pain signals from the intestines. So it is definitely not all in the head.
Like all chronic conditions, it is so much more helpful to approach these symptoms and disorders in a holistic way – taking into account the psychological, energetic and also physiological factors. As a naturopathic nutritionist, I always aim to work in a holistic way, so it comes naturally to me to address the issues together, but I’m surprised at the number of people with gut health issues who don’t seem to make the connection between what is happening in their emotional/mental life and what is happening in their gut. Hopefully by talking more about the physical connections, people will feel they are more able to seek help for long term gut health issues without being labelled as having a psychosomatic problem.
Anyway, hope that all makes sense!
Have a good week