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.”
Expert guidance for the many who suffer with IBD
Approximately 1.5 million people in the United States alone are afflicted with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a category of illnesses that includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and that number is steadily growing.
In our new book Living with Crohn’s & Colitis (Hatherleigh Press, 2010) we offer patient-focused, expert guidance on everything from the latest medical treatments, to how to cope with a diagnosis, along with tips for balancing diet with a busy lifestyle so you can form a personalized wellness plan. The authors, Dr. Jessica Black and Dede Cummings, collaborated to offer a hopeful and authoritative resource for digestive disorder sufferers from both the doctor’s and patient’s pespective.
The authors offer these tips for better digestive health and wellness:
Improve your diet. The very first change that should occur in patients wanting to improve their health is a dietary change. Even minor dietary changes can affect health significantly and usually larger dietary changes can bring even better results. Diet is extremely important to health. Try avoiding processed foods and foods with additives, colors, and preservatives. Avoid sugars, especially items sweetened with refined sugars such as high-fructose corn syrup.
Make lifestyle changes. Changing your lifestyle can be liberating and engaging. It allows one to become more aware of their body and changes that are occurring, as opposed to merely taking a drug and waiting for the symptom to disappear. Integrating whole-body treatment and lifestyle changes can help to improve overall health rather than focusing on one issue or one specific problem. One important lifestyle change to make is creating a routine and rhythm for yourself. Go to bed at the same time, get up at the same time and eat meals at the same time. Routines promote better breathing and better, more relaxed, breathing creates better health and better resistance to illness.
Begin an exercise routine. Exercise is one of the most important lifestyle practices to adopt when considering treatment options. No matter what your physical state is, there is always something you can do for exercise. Following a daily plan is essential to maintaining good health. Try walking at first if you currently don’t have an exercise program. Thirty minutes to one hour walking outside can help improve mood and energy.
Maintain a holistic approach to your health. Taking supplements, getting a stool sample analysis, and going to a psychotherapist, massage therapist, or naturopathic physician are all effective starting points to building an overall, holistic, treatment plan that achieves results for patients suffering from Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).
Increase laughter in your life. Laughter is extremely important for emotional and physical health. In fact, researchers in Japan found laughter very effective in reducing inflammatory cytokines in rheumatoid arthritis patients. Laughter, along with socializing with friends and joining a support group through your local hospital or naturopathic health clinic, can really be beneficial. You may try joining a social networking site on the internet, like CaringBridge.com. Renting funny movies is also an easy and quick way to promote laughter.
Increase body awareness. For an entire week, try writing in a journal all the symptoms your body has and everything you are doing and eating. Be sure to record all symptoms, from the most minor crick in the neck to low back pain, to headaches, to diarrhea. By doing this, you can learn how your body is trying to communicate with you, how you can listen to your body, and then change if you need to.
Try yoga or meditation. Meditation is an extremely important, yet very simple, relaxation tool. Yoga is a great way to relax and is most effective by adopting a regular routine. Try a DVD at home or you can join a class with a trained yoga teacher.
There is an excellent yoga DvD from Rodney Yee that I do almost every morning—and following this yoga practice helps eliminate stress in my life and keep me in remission.
AM Yoga for Beginners with Rodney Yee and it retails at GAIAM.com