What do Your Emotions Have to do with IBS?
Many people suffer from IBS (Irritable bowel syndrome), a common, long-term condition of the digestive system. Complaints include bloating, cramps, tiredness and many other uncomfortable symptoms; but what does it have to do with our emotional or mental wellbeing? Well, quite a bit actually! It may come as a surprise that you have more than one brain and that your second brain is not in your head but in your gut. Haven’t we all had moments when we’ve struggled to make a decision and been advised us to go with our gut feeling?!
Information flows all the time between the brain and the body; the brain sending signals to the gut and vice versa. Housed in the gut is our Vagus nervous system, whose role is to regulate our entire body including biological processes such as digestion. However, what is more pertinent is it’s part in regulating the nervous system when we suffer stress or trauma, common known triggers for IBS; because the vagus nerve is a key regulator of social interaction.
Looked at from a psychological perspective IBS symptoms such as constipation and diarrhoea clearly reflect nervous system responses. Emotional symptoms of fear or being ‘stuck’ in old patterns, inflexibilty or feeling trapped is registered by the body as the ‘frieze’ response reflected in the symptom of constipation, and cramps. Alternatively, when a person is highly activated and stressed, the body automatically fires the sympathetic nervous system response experienced as ‘Fight or Flight’ and as episodes of diarrhoea. These responses require a huge amount of chemical energy which explains the fatigue and debilitation that sufferers of IBS report; whilst using so much energy can also lead to feelings of depression.
So what can be done to help the distressing effects of IBS? Well, fortunately from a physiological aspect, resetting our gut bacteria through diet is possible in a relatively short time frame. As more and more information has come to light recently on the connection between the gut and our brain, there have been copious books published on diets that help reduce symptoms and support the brain by replacing bad bacteria for good gut flora. The gut nervous system well populated with good bacteria also contains neurotransmitters responsible for producing hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, passports to contented mood. As William Morrow says in his book ‘Happy Gut’, if our gut isn’t healthy, we can’t be healthy.
The psychological and the wellbeing aspect of relieving IBS is also critical. Lifestyle changes such as diet can significantly improve our brain health and mood; diminishing depression, and auto-immune attack, as well as increasing memory and concentration. But beyond changes in diet, changes in behaviours are also crucial. Mindfulness is hugely beneficial to combat stress levels that travel from the brain to the gut and activate symptoms. Meditation can slow down the pace of life, promoting awareness and relaxation. And perhaps a lesser considered form of healing is a therapeutic investigation into cause over symptom. The body is a wonderful messenger. Understanding emotional causes of any form of dysfunction in the body is key, as we learn to listen and trust our bodies’ as messengers of our suffering souls. The language our body speaks is vital to good health.
IBS is an often painful and draining disorder that can be embarrassing and limiting; a condition that many people feel they have to ‘put up’ with. But worth considering are the steps that can overcome the feeling of helplessness and empower the sufferer to take responsibility for healing.
Can I change my diet? Can I improve my lifestyle?….. or is my suffering the symptom of a deeper wound unaddressed?