Inside our digestive tract lies the enteric nervous system, a complex web of neurons that links the gut to the spinal cord and brain.
Nicknamed the ‘gut-brain axis’, this connection often guides the instincts we experience deep within the belly. It also means that what’s going on in our stomachs can impact our brain function, and our thoughts, feelings and emotions can influence our digestion (including the amount of bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation we experience).
Emotional stress is often linked with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but patients with other digestive issues like Crohn’s, colitis, GERD, ulcers, pancreatitis, diverticulitis etc. also experience anxieties that affect their symptoms.
There is nothing more frustrating being told, “It’s all in your head.” It’s not true, and yet it’s also kind of true. Given what we are learning about the pathway between the digestive tract and the brain, how do we know what came first, the chicken or the egg? Was it a physical disruption in our gut that triggered our emotional disruption, or the other way around?
Regardless of the origin of our digestive issues, I think we can all agree that stress (whether physical, emotional, financial, etc.) have an impact on the expression and progression of most (if not all) disease.
The hormones that we produce during stress – adrenaline and cortisol – can be very damaging to the body. When stress hormones are released, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered and we simply can’t digest our food properly.
Stress also impacts sleep, mood, weight, the cardiovascular system, sex hormones and blood sugar, so there are plenty of reasons to focus our attention on reducing it in any way we can.
Here are some helpful strategies you can employ to help you take ‘control’ of your stomach using your brain.
Explore Deep Breathing (or any kind of meditative practice)
Deep breathing gets us out of that uneasy ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, which helps to calm the digestive tract. Certain yoga poses also combine breath with movement to help massage or ‘wring out’ the belly, leading to better digestion and elimination.
You don’t have to dedicate much time at all to profit from deep breathing. Start off with taking 5-10 deep breaths at a time (upon waking, before & after meals, whenever feeling stressed) and I’ll bet you’ll begin to notice a difference. Breathe slowly, feeling your lungs stretch to their capacity, and aim for your exhales to be longer than your inhales (I personally do a 3 second inhale, 1 second pause, 5 second exhale, 1 second pause – and repeat). Once you’ve got your 5-10 breaths down pat, you can challenge yourself to double or even triple your count.
Eat When You’re Relaxed
When we’re feeling stressed or anxious, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. The blood starts flowing to our arms and legs so we can get ready to run. This means that our energy and blood flow is diverted away from the digestive tract, which is ruled by our parasympathetic nervous system. We need to be at rest to digest – and when we’re stressed out, digestion is not a priority.
Whenever possible, don’t eat when you are feeling rushed. Try to avoid eating while standing, walking, driving, working, or watching TV, as these activities make it very difficult for you to focus on your food.
Eating mindfully means incorporating attentive practices like sufficient chewing, eating slowly, sitting at a table, noticing your food’s appearance and aroma, and being grateful for what’s on your plate.
Practice Self Care
All the deep breathing in the world won’t help if you’re constantly beating yourself up about your failures and imperfections. No matter what stage you’re at in your health (or life in general), remember to be kind and compassionate with yourself. Go for a walk. Have a cup of tea. Take a bath. Read a book. Connect with loved ones. Treat yourself to a massage. Do whatever it is that helps you feel replenished.
Celebrate the Positives
It can be easy to get lost in the horizon, always looking ahead and focusing on what isn’t working in your healing process, but it’s important to celebrate every little victory. Did you experience a night of uninterrupted sleep? Amazing! Only had two bouts of diarrhea today instead of your usual six? Awesome!
Remember, all we really have is the present, so try to focus on the things that you’re thankful for. If this is a challenge for you, try a gratitude journal – noting at least 3 things you feel grateful for everyday (trying not to use repeats). This helps get our juices flowing and shifts our perspective to one of gratitude and abundance.
Stay tuned for my upcoming post on how the gut health influences the brain