by Jessica Petrucci
When it’s time to make a big decision, you might say, “My gut tells me...” to describe the feeling deep within you that guides you to make the smartest choices. What if I told you that your gut is your second brain, and it might have a very important message for you: chill out.
Just like your brain, your gut is a part of your nervous system. The brain is a part of the central nervous system (CNS), and the gut is a part of the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS works with the CNS and neural pathways that pass through the digestive tract to control digestive functions. (1)
Because the gut and brain are in constant communication, feelings of excitement—good or bad—can affect the gut. “Butterflies in your stomach” is just your gut telling you that you are distressed. All of our emotions, especially stressors, can play a significant role in gut function.
Some gut disorders are thought to be worsened or even caused by stress triggers. The term functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) represents a group of gut disorders that cause abnormal gut function, increased visceral pain, and disruption of the gut microbiota. FGIDs usually present with physical symptoms but no physiological issues. For example, the most common FGID is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects 7–10% of the population worldwide. IBS is characterized by recurring abdominal pain and discomfort, and diarrhea or constipation. (2) Treatment of IBS often consists of symptom management through a combination of laxatives and antidiarrheal agents.
So what does all of this mean? Said simply, it means that in order to maintain healthy gut function and avoid FGIDs, you need to have a healthy emotional balance. This is easier said than done. As someone who teaches yoga, avidly practices living a healthy lifestyle and works for a wellness company that focuses on gut health, I am still affected by IBS symptoms from time to time. The best thing I can do to manage my IBS or help my gut fight off IBS symptoms is to manage my daily stress.
Life happens, but how you deal with stress as it arises can help you stay healthy in the long run. Since becoming a yoga teacher, I have slowly incorporated more and more mindfulness practices into my routine to help with daily stressors. For good gut health, try to practice at least 10 minutes of mindfulness each day. This suggestion isn’t just idealized by yogis who want everyone to join the Buddha bandwagon. Recent studies have shown that mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) may be an effective treatment for FGIDs. Simple mindfulness practices have been shown to reduce symptom severity and improve quality of life. (2)
If you struggle with digestive irregularities, developing a mindfulness practice that works for you could be beneficial for your gut function. If you aren’t familiar with mindfulness or meditation, try anything that brings you joy. For example, I love cuddling my pets, going for long walks outside, reading books while I ride the stationary bike (I know that one is weird), cooking, and painting. Anything that makes you feel more present in the moment and at peace should be included in your mindfulness practice.
If you are just getting started with mindfulness, practicing meditation can be a great introduction. Set aside 5 minutes a day to be present and be patient with yourself. There are many great resources for getting started with meditation. As you allow yourself to get quiet, you will most likely find yourself wiggling about and having all sorts of random thoughts at first. As thoughts arise, just notice them and then turn your focus to your breath. With practice, you will find that your wandering mind never exactly quiets, but by focusing on your breath during meditation those thoughts will simply drift by.
Check out a few of these resources for more information on the benefits of mindfulness. To learn how stress might be affecting your gut health, try the Ixcela test. All Ixcela customers will be granted access to a Mindfulness Library, another tool that we are developing to help you improve your gut health scores.