Trust Your Gut: Understanding Mental Digestion

By Natalie Amsden

When experiencing a digestion problem, we often think of food as the culprit. While the quality of our food definitely is a factor in this equation, we usually overlook the true villain—STRESS.

Go to a doctor for digestive symptoms, and it’s likely you will come home with a prescription (or three) to reduce acid reflux, stimulate the digestive track, and probably even “treat” anxiety or depression. Visit an alternative medical doctor, and you’ll come home with a prescription to eat raw foods, enzymes and herbs. But no amount of drugs or herbs is going to fix digestive difficulties in the long run if the problems are caused by stress. And if you have digestive problems, chances are stress is the engine powering them!

A Tale of Two Brains
Our digestive system is autonomous, meaning it thinks for itself. Research has found that our gut has 500 million nerve cells, second only to the brain. More and more, scientists are recognizing the importance of digestion and refer to our intestines as our “second brain.” Anyone who has ever experienced a “gut feeling” can confirm the validity of this. Many people even look to this “gut brain” for signals to help make decisions!

Although autonomous, our gut brain is intimately connected to our big brain. Our primary connection is called the vagus nerve, which starts at the base of the brain, travels across the chest, and branches throughout the gut. A majority of the signals going between the gut and the brain are going in reverse, meaning our gut impacts the rest of our body—not just by determining the quality of our nutrient absorption and distribution, but by telling our brain how we feel. There is truth in the saying, “Trust your gut.”

The Stress Effect
Have you had any of the following symptoms or conditions?
• Heart disease        • Sleep problems        • Fatigue
• Digestive problems    • Depression        • Obesity
Sexual dysfunction    • Memory impairment    • Anxiety
• Diabetes         • Hyperthyroidism        • Ulcers
• Tooth and gum disease     • Hair loss

Well, according to Mayo Clinic (and most other scientific sources), all of the above have a PROVEN, direct link with stress. Why does stress cause these ailments? According to Dr. Mercola, whose website is the No. 1 ranked “natural health” website in the world, the stress response causes a number of detrimental events in the body, including:
• Decreased nutrient absorption
• Elevated cholesterol
• Decreased oxygenation to the gut
• Heartburn
• Decreased gut flora populations
• Elevated triglycerides
• Increased food sensitivity
• Dour times less blood flow to the digestive system
• Decreased enzyme production in the gut

So, then, why does stress cause these physiological reactions in the body? The University of Kentucky School of Medicine conducted extensive studies on the distribution of blood flow throughout the body during exercise, and it has the exact same impact on the body’s blood flow distribution as chronic stress. A peaceful, resting body expends a majority of its energy in the digestion process; however, as exercise becomes more strenuous, blood flow increases and the body stops blood flow to regions nonessential for exercise, specifically the digestive system, and reroutes it to the muscles.

During exercise, digestion stops.

Imagine we exercised ALL the time and stopped digesting completely…Now we’re starting to get to an understanding of how stress can impact the body. Let’s look closer.

The Butterfly Effect
The gut is intricately linked to your state of mind, as you know if you’ve ever had butterflies before a big date or felt sick before an exam. Feeling butterflies in the stomach is just a milder version of a more severe reaction experienced during a traumatic event (or even a scary interview). During these situations, the body enters fight-or-flight mode and the brain issues a surge of stress hormones, signaling the body to focus all its resources (including blood flow, like in the case of exercise) on the problem—leaving the regulation of digestion on the back burner. In response, the gut may go into overdrive (otherwise known as diarrhea or vomiting). Good times.

The Saber-tooth Effect
If our bodies didn’t have a natural stress response we would be dead. Actually, our ancestors would have died and we never would have been born at all. Our fight-or-flight response was designed to save our cave-dwelling ancestors from an untimely death in the jaws of a saber-toothed predator. Today, humans are on the top of the food chain, but we may recognize the symptoms of flight-or-flight response from the last time someone cut us off in traffic:
• increased heart rate
• elevated blood pressure
• increased oxygen in the brain
• increased muscle tension
• a boost in energy supply (no coffee needed!)

But, according to Mayo Clinic there are also a few things going on under the surface that you wouldn’t notice:
• altered immune system responses
• suppressed digestive system (who needs to digest when you’re running from a saber-toothed tiger?)
• suppressed reproductive system and growth (saving your own butt takes priority over survival of the species)

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, other symptoms you may be familiar with include sudden lack of appetite, heartburn, nausea and stomach pains.

The chemicals and hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, released to save our lives are supposed to return to normal after our Neanderthal is sitting around the cave fire telling his buddies about his narrow miss. But in the modern world our bodies don’t normalize because our stress isn’t caused by threat of death. For us, everything looks like a toothed predator! Our stress is constant! Overbearing bosses, tight schedules, nagging children, distant spouses, and empty hearts put many of us in a state of chronic stress—as if we’re in a perpetual state of fight or flight.

Remember what happens when we exercise? Stress has the same impact on our bodies, but unlike exercise, American’s experience stress nearly 24 hours a day.

“Prolonged stress has a significant effect on digestive health. The blood supply to the organs of digestion is increasingly diminished making repair difficult and digestion weak. In time, the bacterial eco-system in our digestive tract (so vital for nutrient absorption) becomes unbalanced and pain, constipation and/or diarrhea are more common.” – Sue Webster, colon hydrotherapist

Mental Indigestion
If stress is the cause of physical indigestion, what is the cause of stress? MENTAL indigestion! Most people be-bop through life oblivious to their mental, emotional, and physical states and do not notice how stress effects them until they’re at the doctor’s office asking for a pill. I would like to propose that if we PROCESS what happens in our lives and DIGEST what enters our minds, we can reduce our stress, better digest our food, and regain our health!

Below are common symptoms and causes of MENTAL indigestion. Notice whether you have experienced the corresponding physical digestive ailment in conjunction with its mental/emotional counterpart:
Constipation: repression of feelings, resistance of what IS, unwillingness to look at and process a situation or feeling.
The runs: distractibility, complete withdrawal of attention to mental processing, inability to absorb information.
Gagging: trying to swallow large mental concepts or ideas in one bite, biting off more than you can chew.
Nausea: consumption of poisonous or rotten thoughts, fear caused by a lack of understanding.
Bloating: inability or unwillingness to release.
Acid reflux: lack of balance, painful shout-out to oneself.
Fatigue: poor quality input, lack of positive stimulation.
Weight gain: holding onto emotions, such as resentment, fear, and guilt, causing them to get stuck in (and expand) your (fat) cells.
Irritable bowl syndrome: constant irritation and anxiety, no matter what you try to digest it just doesn’t come out right.
Indigestion: some things are just not digestible, such as bones (What bone are you gnawing? Put down the bone.)

Tools for improving mental AND physical digestion:
• Get proper health care for existing or new digestive problems (digestive issues can also CAUSE stress).
• Seek support, such as counseling, life coaching, or support groups.
• Develop a gratitude practice, such as journaling.
• Exercise in any form that you enjoy.
• Do what you love.
• Make the changes you’ve been putting off.
• Explore stress reduction programs, such as yoga, massage and acupuncture.
• Develop a spiritual practice or join a spiritual group.

And remember “… or get off the pot.” Sometimes you’re just not ready to process or digest certain thoughts, emotions, experiences, or food, and that’s okay.

Natalie, Publisher of Transformation Magazine, has worked with thousands of people seeking to live a life of purpose and genuine relationship with their true selves, others, and their world. She is the former Director of a counseling center for teenagers and their parents. She is also a public speaker and leads workshops and retreats on Practical Spirituality, Finding Joy, Discovering Your Purpose, and Enlightened Relationships.

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