Go with your gut!

Gut feelings and our sense of well-being.

We have all experienced the connection between emotions and our digestive system – we call them gut feelings – and we know that our emotions can affect how our intestines function. The same is also true the other way around – conditions in our intestines can influence our mental state, and even the development of mood disorders – and we’re now beginning to understand how this works.

I have first-hand experience of this. About 15 years ago, fed up with suffering from IBS, I decided to try cutting out some food groups, starting with dairy and wheat. I didn’t notice much at first but after about four weeks the pain and bloating subsided, and I felt a great deal better. Then I noticed that the mood swings I had always put down to hormonal changes had also completely gone. These mood swings could be quite extreme, and included feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, low-self-esteem, and poor self-image.

I tried re-introducing the foods, first dairy without any problems. But when I introduced wheat, I had the most profound reaction. The next day, I was almost suicidal and could hardly put one foot in front of the other – it was all I could do to get through that day. I held onto the thought that this had to be something outside of me, something external because nothing had changed from yesterday except that I had eaten wheat. This reaction persists even now, and even a tiny amount of wheat – ordinary soy sauce, or crispy-coated chips – will give me a dreadful ‘low’ about 24 hours later.

Our intestines are naturally porous. With conditions such as IBS there is a certain amount of inflammation and therefore swelling, hence the bloating and backache. Undigested food particles can pass more easily into the blood stream. The chemical balance of the fluid between the cells changes. All this affects the Vagus nerve, the messenger between our intestines and the brain. It’s the longest cranial nerve in the body and it has a role in the interplay between autonomic regulation (the unconscious functions of the body like heart rate and digestion) and the limbic centres which govern emotional expression and control.

We used to think of the Vagus nerve as simply the carrier of commands from the brain to glands and organs, but because it actually has more afferent neurons (taking messages from the body to the brain) rather than efferent neurons (taking messages from the brain to the body) it’s an important mediator of the connections between conditions in the abdomen and our emotional state.

This research is so important that it’s now being described as the third division of the autonomic nervous system and scientists are carefully studying the connection between our emotions and the role of the Vagus nerve. For example, a human has more serotonin receptors in the gut than in the brain. Understanding this relationship has many implications and explains why new medication guidelines for many chronic intestinal disorders recommend antidepressants over traditionally used drugs.

A recent study found that facial massage causes transmission along the Vagus nerve and into the limbic system, producing feelings of being soothed and cared for. In abdominal massage, it’s likely that stimulating the Vagus nerve help to shift the body into a parasympathetic state, giving us those feelings we experience after a good yoga class or a meditation session. So, the use of abdominal massage for mood disorders, relaxation and sleep promotion is an excellent reason (if you need one) to include abdominal massage in your treatments.

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