The mind-gut connection – most of us have felt this but may not know what it is. It’s that choice you make that “felt right” or the butterflies we felt when our high school crushes walked by or the stomach going on a roller coaster ride right before that important board meeting. Our gut is sensitive to our emotions – be it anger, irritability, anxiety, happiness or sadness and others. The second brain in your gut makes up the enteric nervous system – the system that is responsible for responding to emotional stimuli and manifesting as physical symptoms like “butterflies” or “gut-wrenching.”
We know that the mind and the gut can talk to each other through nerve connections. The thought of a fresh out of the oven homemade apple pie can make our stomach grumble and excrete digestive juices before taking the first bite. But this isn’t a one-way highway – communication goes both. An unhappy gut can send signals to the mind just as a unhappy mind can send signals to the gut. Irritable bowel sufferers know this all too well.
Understanding the mind-gut connection – check.
Let’s explore how mindfulness can help with irritable bowel syndrome.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal disorder with symptoms including abdominal cramping or pain, bloating, increased gas production and altered bowel habits (alternating periods of diarrhea and constipation). There are many proposed causes of IBS including dysfunctional gastrointestinal tract movements, increased awareness of bodily functions and a disruption in the communication between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract. IBS sufferers are more prone to anxiety and depression.
We know that when we are in a sympathetic overdrive (our bodies in a stressful state) our body is prepped for a flight or fight situation. In this situation, we shut off energy resources to our digestive and immune system (oh hello bloating, constipation and diarrhea) and accelerate heart rate, constrict blood vessels and increase blood pressure. When our bodies are in a parasympathetic state (also known as the rest and digest system) our heart rate decreases and we have an increase in digestive activity. Most importantly there is a relaxation in the muscles that cause the gastrointestinal tract to tighten – which has been suggested as a contributor to IBS.
I hope the little bread crumbs of information I’m dropping here are bringing you home. Mindfulness can be defined as an awareness that comes through intentionally being present in an open, caring and non-judgmental way. Mindfulness is aimed at sparking a relaxation response, which gets our body from a sympathetic state to parasympathetic state. Being aware of when you body is in a flight or fight mode can help you check in with yourself and your gut reactions. Mindfulness can be approached through a meditation practice, mindful eating and mindful walking.
A randomized controlled trial from 2013 investigated the effects of mindfulness in 90 patients diagnosed with IBS. Patients were randomized to a mindfulness group or asked to wait until the next available program. Researchers found that the group receiving mindfulness showed greater improvement in IBS symptom severity as well improvements in mood and quality of life. What’s better than that? These changes were still seen at the 6-month follow-up! Whoho!
For all our science lovers – mindfulness has also been shown to boost serotonin. Serotonin is also known as the “happy neurotransmitter” and guess what …the majority of serotonin is produced in the gut. MRI brain studies from Yale and Washington University have shown that mindfulness inhibits the stress producing region of the brain (the amygdala and right prefrontal cortex), while increasing activation in the left prefrontal cortex (releases serotonin). But I just told you that your gut produces the majority of serotonin so how does increased serotonin in the brain help with IBS? Fair question. Remember serotonin is the “happy neurotransmitter” increased levels of serotonin in the brain can help us feel better, relax and be calmer. This in turn increases our immune system. The immune cells in the gut can help increase serotonin. There are also a host of other cells in the gut such as the endocrine cells and gut neurons that also increase serotonin. Serotonin is being passed back and forth, like a chemical basketball (Go Raptors! (playoff time)) between the mind and gut.
There is so much interesting research investigating serotonin’s role in the mind-gut connection, specifically how serotonin affects brain development and behaviour.
IBS is a multifaceted condition and requires a dynamic and multipronged approach when it comes to its symptom management. The health professionals at CCH are well equipped to assist you in your journey of healing.