Harness the Potential of the Gut-Brain Connection Through Therapy
Our emotions and psychological wellbeing have the capacity to affect our body's health, and vice versa
Therapist Veronique Pradalier explores the potential of the mind-body connection and how therapy can support its health
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Have you ever had that frustrating feeling when you know what you should do but, somehow, you can’t seem to do it?
Do you want to uncover your own potential and inner strength using your extraordinary brain plasticity and your nervous system?
Do you want to learn how your emotions, body and mind can interact more harmoniously?
By better understanding our body and mind, we can help it to repair itself or, at least, to function more efficiently. In my practice, I use relaxation, breathing and other behavioural and cognitive techniques, including hypnosis, to help people overcome their difficulties. The benefits of a holistic approach are well-documented. For instance, good nutrition combined with your chosen form of therapy, can help reduce stress and associated symptoms. Hypnotherapy, in particular, uses visualisation to improve body function. For example, hypnotherapy treatments for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) involves the client visualising their bowel in order to ameliorate its functioning.
What stress does to the body
Stress responses are natural and healthy; they have historically enabled our species to survive by removing ourselves from situations of danger. However, whilst we have all probably found ourselves in situations where we wanted nothing else but to "leg it" (a Monday morning work meeting, conflictual situations, etc.), running away is no longer a rational option in the majority of cases. Our attachment to stressful situations has negative effects on the body.
Stress causes inflammation by increasing levels of adrenaline and cortisol. It also activates the sympathetic nervous system. Around 70% to 80% of illnesses are linked to stress (cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity etc.). Reducing our stress responses reduces the inflammatory responses in the body so, whilst we cannot avoid stressful events, we can learn to respond to them differently, and in doing so can protect ourselves from its damaging effects.
How can therapy help
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Gestalt therapy, Mindfulness, PMR (Progressive Muscle Relaxation) are some of the psychotherapy techniques and complementary health approaches now available, and these yield powerful results, in my experience even more so when combined with hypnosis. Because hypnosis modulates brain activity (as verified via CT scan), it is possible to regulate and improve the communication between the various neuronal activities. It is used, for example, to block pain signals during surgery (famously practised at CHU Lille, France), to improve digestive discomfort (as described by Dr M. Gershon) or to improve sub-clinical mental health conditions.
The mind-body connection
These psychotherapy techniques also influence our second brain: the gut. With around 200 million neurons (the same number as a dog's brain), the enteric nervous system (ENS) not only helps us to digest, it actually does so much more. It is sometimes called the first brain as it evolved before the central nervous system (CNS).
The neurotransmitters in the brain and the vagus nerve are the same; one of these transmitters is called serotonin, which regulates our wellbeing in our central nervous system, particularly in the hypothalamus. Since most serotonin is created in the gut, to then travel up to the CNS via the blood stream, it is not just our emotions that influence our gut but our gut also affects our emotions: it’s a two-way street.
One of the pioneers of neurogastroenterolgy is Dr Michael Gershon from New York. If we look closer at the function of the gut, we also realise that we have a dense ecosystem of bacteria known as the microbiome. We have a hundred times more bacteria than cells in our body, so we are not just the sum of our cells, but more the sum of our bacteria. According to the latest research of Dr Stephen M. Collins from McMaster University, Canada, we have more bacterial DNA than human DNA and researchers are now talking about a third brain, the intelligence of bacteria… The richer and more diverse the microbiome, the healthier we are. Enriching both the biodiversity of the gut and that of our mental wellbeing via healthy nutrition and lifestyle seems to be the key to overall good health.
Resolving our ambivalence is a tricky task; we are often in conflict between actions towards our goals and avoidance behaviour. This paradox is a common human experience. A holistic vision of the body and mind connection helps us to get the life we want and the solutions are multiple.
With at least three brains to look after, investing in wellbeing is more essential than ever.
Veronique Pradalier is a verified welldoing.org therapist in SW2, London