I’ve often wondered where expressions like “I feel it in my gut,” or the ubiquitous “butterflies in my stomach,” came from. As a layperson, writer of a new book on living with Crohn’s disease, and Crohn’s disease patient, I am fascinated by the connection between the brain and gut.
According to a New York Times article (Blakeslee, S. “Complex and Hidden Brain in Gut Makes Stomachaches and Butterflies,” January 23, 1996), the gut’s brain, “known as the enteric nervous system, is located in sheaths of tissue lining the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. Considered a single entity, it is a network of neurons, neurotransmitters and proteins that zap messages between neurons, support cells like those found in the brain proper and a complex circuitry that enables it to act independently, learn, remember and, as the saying goes, produce gut feelings.”
After reading the New York Times article, I came across Dr. Gershon’s book, The Second Brain, when I was struggling with a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome. Dr. Gershon is chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City and is a pioneer in research related to the gut/brain relationship. In his book, he presents a fascinating combination of neuroscience and gastroenterology. Dr. Gershon has devoted thirty years of research to this “brain in our bowel” science, and his writing is persuasive and passionate.
Emeran Mayer, M.D. also theorizes that just as meditation calms the mind, it can also relax the bowel and promote healing. In his research clinic at UCLA, he has found that most patients notice an improvement almost immediately after starting to practice meditation.
In my meditation practice, I strive daily to “open up my heart,” which is for some a symbolic act (or a spiritual affirmation) that reinforces my commitment to healing my self and reaching out to the world and the spiritual forces that I feel guide me. Since I am tall (almost 5 foot 9 inches), I sometimes slouch, and hold my shoulders inward; nowadays, I remember my dance training and pull my shoulders back, which helps me focus on opening my heart.
When I get those “butterflies” in my stomach—one example is having a client call you up and berate you over the phone if a publishing job is late (yes, this does happen, and once a client fired me after a weekend-long Crohn’s flare-up!)—I sometimes tell my client to “please wait a moment,” and I go sit on a pillow on the floor and take a few deep breaths and feel a weight lifted from my heart and abdomen; then, I pick up the phone.
I often use the following intention to end my yoga practice and also as an overall stress reducer: “May our thoughts be kind and clear; may our words and communication be kind and clear; may our actions and intentions be for the greater good of all human beings.”