This blog post originally appeared on Mindful.Org
Most of us can relate to the experience of having butterflies in our stomach, or to a visceral gut-wrenching feeling, and how often are we told not to ignore our “gut-instinct” or “gut-feeling” when making a decision.
Even from our simple slang, it’s clear just how symbolically connected the gut is to our emotions. Now, there’s tangible proof to support these popular metaphors.
We all have a microbiome, and they are as unique as our neural pathways
Research has shown that the body is actually composed of more bacteria than cells. We are more bug than human! Collectively, these trillions of bacteria are called the microbiome. Most of those bacteria reside in our gut, sometimes referred to as the gut microbiota, and they play multiple roles in our overall health.
The gut is no longer seen as an entity with the sole purpose of helping with all aspects of digestion. It’s also being considered as a key player in regulating inflammation and immunity.
A healthy gut consists of different iterations of bacteria for different people, and this diversity maintains wellness. A shift away from “normal” gut microbiota diversity is called dysbiosis, and dysbiosis may contribute to disease. In light of this, the microbiome has become the focus of much research attention as a new way of understanding autoimmune, gastrointestinal, and even brain disorders.
The benefit of a healthy gut is illustrated most effectively during early development. Research has indicated just how sensitive a fetus is to any changes in a mother’s microbiotic makeup, so much so that it can alter the way a baby’s brain develops. If a baby is born via cesarean section, it misses an opportunity to ingest the mother’s bacteria as it travels down the vaginal canal. Studies show that those born via c-section have to work to regain the same diversity in their microbiome as those born vaginally. Throughout our lives, our microbiome continues to be a vulnerable entity, and as we are exposed to stress, toxins, chemicals, certain diets, and even exercise, our microbiome fluctuates for better or worse.
The gut as second brain
Our gut microbiota play a vital role in our physical and psychological health via its own neural network: the enteric nervous system (ENS), a complex system of about 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut.
The ENS is sometimes called the “second brain,” and it actually arises from the same tissues as our central nervous system (CNS) during fetal development. Therefore, it has many structural and chemical parallels to the brain.
Our ENS doesn’t wax philosophical or make executive decisions like the gray shiny mound in our skulls. Yet, in a miraculously orchestrated symphony of hormones, neurotransmitters, and electrical impulses through a pathway of nerves, both “brains” communicate back and forth. These pathways include and involve endocrine, immune, and neural pathways.
At this point in time, even though the research is inchoate and complex, it is clear that the brain and gut are so intimately connected that it sometimes seems like one system, not two.
Our emotions play a big role in functional gastrointestinal disorders
Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it has become clear that emotional and psychosocial factors can trigger symptoms in the gut. This is especially true in cases when the gut is acting up and there’s no obvious physical cause.
The functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) are a group of more than 20 chronic and hard to treat medical conditions of the gastrointestinal tract that constitute a large proportion of the presenting problems seen in clinical gastroenterology.
While FGID’s were once thought to be partly “in one’s head,” a more precise conceptualization of these difficulties posits that psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as the modulation of symptoms. In other words, psychological factors can literally impact upon physical factors, like the movement and contractions of the GI tract, causing, inflammation, pain, and other bowel symptoms.
Mental health impacts gut wellness
In light of this new understanding, it might be impossible to heal FGID’s without considering the impact of stress and emotion. Studies have shown that patients who tried psychologically based approaches had greater improvement in their symptoms compared with patients who received conventional medical treatment.
Along those lines, a new pilot study from Harvard University affiliates Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that meditation could have a significant impact for those with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Forty-eight patients with either IBS or IBD took a 9-week session that included meditation training, and the results showed reduced pain, improved symptoms, stress reduction, and the change in expression of genes that contribute to inflammation.
Poor gut health can lead to neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders
Vice-versa, poor gut health has been implicated in neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders. Disturbances in gut health have been linked to multiple sclerosis, autistic spectrum disorders, and Parkinson’s disease. This is potentially related to pro-inflammatory states elicited by gut dysbiosis-microbial imbalance on or inside the body. Additional connections between age-related gut changes and Alzheimer’s disease have also been made.
Further, there is now research that is dubbing depression as an inflammatory disorder mediated by poor gut health. In fact, multiple animal studies have shown that manipulating the gut microbiota in some way can produce behaviors related to anxiety and depression. (Maes, Kubera, Leunis, Berk, J. Affective Disorders, 2012 and Berk, Williams, Jacka, BMC Med, 2013).
Our brain’s health, which will be discussed in more depth in a later blog post, is dependent on many lifestyle choices that mediate gut health; including most notably diet (i.e., reduction of excess sugar and refined carbohydrates) and pre and probiotic intake.
The brain-gut connection has treatment implications
We are now faced with the possibility of both prevention and treatment of neurological/neuropsychiatric difficulties via proper gut health. On the flip side, stress-reduction and other psychological treatments can help prevent and treat gastrointestinal disorders. This discovery can potentially lead to reduced morbidity, impairment, and chronic dependency on health care resources.
The most empowering aspect to the gut-brain connection is the understanding that many of our daily lifestyle choices play a role in mediating our overall wellness. This whole-body approach to healthcare and wellness continues to show its value in our longevity, well-being, and quality of life: that both physical and mental health go hand-in-hand.
This blog post originally appeared, in an adapted form, on Mindful.Org
I don’t know about you, but I feel so much better when my environment is neat and organized. After a long day of work, coming home to a neat space is like coming home to myself. It is a refuge, truly, and I feel soothed.
When I wake up in the morning, before the sun comes up, and stumble to my espresso machine, bleary eyed and still ridiculously tired, a neat space seems to beckon me to use my time in the way I so desire. I try to wake up early to practice mindfulness, set an intention for the day, and then either focus to finish patient notes from the day before, or write creatively…although I’d like this to happen more regularly than it does, I am gentle with myself when it doesn’t.
I do know, however, that there are certain ingredients that will immediately create an impasse for all that to manifest. That is waking up to a messy space. Waking up to a messy space becomes a metaphor for the brain fog and overwhelming feelings that begin to ensue. Decluttering is hard, but it is worth it. The effects impact your mind and body. Some of the behavioral work with my patient focuses on paced organization schedules as well as cognitive work regarding the “letting go” of the clutter that many of us create to protect ourselves. This idea is vast, and I will write a post about that in its entirety at a later time.
My patients find that undoubtedly, as the cutter begins to lessen, they feel a clearing in their minds that they never thought was possible. This is a kind of outside-in decluttering. A physical clearing creates vast mind space. I recommend this extraordinary book to help you get started with the outside in process: “The life-changing magic of tidying up”.
Here’s the thing though, just as we need to declutter our physical surroundings, we need to declutter from the inside-out. I like to call this feat “Feng-Shui-ing the Grey Matter”. Literally, we need to spring clean and give our neural circuitry the room to grow. When this happens, we begin to literally feel the lightness of being.
The irony here: When we declutter, both the environment we inhabit and the minds that sometimes seem to inhabit us, we start to fill our lives with meaning and possibility.
The Brain is now known to be a neuroplastic entity (see my recent Mindful.org post for more on that: “How the Brain Changes When You Meditate“). It is no longer static and by “feng shu-ing the grey matter” we can literally change the neurofunctional space that all the crud and chaos seemed to take up.
Personally, I find this comforting and empowering. What I have found, through my own tedious work, as well as the perseverance of my patients, is that this space is a place where we can mindfully allow for positive Qi to flow within us.
Too esoteric? I hear you. What if I concretized the concept a bit so that we can take actionable steps to feeling better, inside-out.
- Sometimes it seems like all I can do to calm down, to declutter, to make space, is to Take a Vinyasa (flow with breath and body through a sequence of asanas/postures/yoga poses). Sometimes I go from downward dog to plank to upward dog and back. Sometimes I start from a Warrior II pose then straighten my front leg in sync my breath, which is also now in sync to my hands moving from out to the sides to above my head.
- When I am particularly overwhelmed by negative thought clutter, and it seems as though the ruminations won’t end, I Recite a Poem. I literally recite my favorite poem (which I committed to knowing by memory for this VERY purpose), which happens to be Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver. I become so engaged in reciting the poem, mindful of both the rhythm and meaning of the words, that I let go of all other thoughts. My brain can’t BOTH recite a poem and ruminate at once! You don’t have to use a poem…you can use a favorite song, monologue, etc.
- One of my favorite ways to instantly declutter is to literally Bust a Move! I bust out one of my favorite dance moves, and even get the added bonus of the endorphins. I grew up with Tapes, not CD’s, so can anyone say THE RUNNING MAN (or the ELECTRIC SLIDE)!
- While I don’t purport to live in the past by way of having regrets and overanalyzing situations which are long forgotten, I DO like to Mosey Down (good) Memory Lane. I find it such a treat to close my eyes and picture myself at that concert at the Boston House of Blues, that time my dad took me to my first baseball game… peanuts and all, playing my guitar solo in front of an audience, passing my licensing exam, getting those roses…the list can go on and on. I get to go back to that time and place, to feel the sensations as I surrender to sweet nostalgia.
- One of the most effective ways to Feng Shui the Grey is to simply Say Thank You. You don’t necessarily have to have a god, or the universe, or anyone in particular in mind. Just a general “thank you” to express gratitude for everything you are or aren’t, and everything you have or don’t have. This is by no means easy, and I do NOT mean to placate you or undermine any difficulty you are experiencing. But there is actual literature in the field of “Positive Psychology” that expressing gratitude is a huge part of mental health, which includes stress reduction.
For those of us who want to have at least SOME control in such an uncertain life, we can actually make the CHOICE to declutter our minds, and in doing so we actually change the map of our lives.