The human gut is often referred to as the “second brain”, and has an intricate network of 100 million neurons embedded in the gut wall. Our gut is hard wired into our flight-fight response in stressful or dangerous situations. Our gut also expresses what we are feeling and thinking. Everyday expressions such as “go with your gut feeling” and “butterflies in the stomach” reflect the interaction between the gut and brain in the expression of our thoughts and emotions.
Gut flora, including bacteria within the gut, plays essential roles in many aspects of digestion and metabolism; these include extracting and producing essential vitamins from food you eat, maintaining the immune system, blocking harmful bacteria from setting up camp, and producing chemicals which defend us against pathogens that cause illness. Gut bacteria also produce hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate both physiological as well as mental processes such as learning, memory and mood. For example, gut bacteria manufactures about 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, which influences both mood and activity within the stomach and intestinal system.
One in five Australians experience pain or discomfort associated with their stomach and intestines which cannot be explained by a specific disease or damage. This can include cramps bloating, diarrhea, constipation, wind, nausea and indigestion. These symptoms often lead to frustration and embarrassment, having a huge impact on our quality of life and independence. It has been found that these symptoms can be triggered by stressful life events, trauma, and other causes of disruption to bacteria within the gut. The brain’s response to pain, movement, and gut motility is also altered by past, present or perceived circumstances, for example, strong emotions such as anger and anxiety affect blood flow to the lining of the gut and alter acid secretion.
Dysfunction in the gut can be related to:
- Muscle activity & muscular contractions: when this is abnormal, there can be muscular spasms that can cause pain – the contractions can be very fast (causing diarrhea) or very slow (causing constipation)
- Sensation & nerve response: overactive or underactive nerve activity can cause issues such as weight gain, weight loss, inflammation, IBS symptoms, vitamin deficiency, depression and anxiety
- Brain-gut dysfunction or disharmony in the way the brain and gut communicate – leading to increased pain and bowel difficulties which is often worsened by stress
Psychological intervention has been proven to be of great assistance in managing these symptoms. Careful attention to and modification of thinking patterns, specific relaxation, techniques, hypnosis and biofeedback can bring relief and control of these debilitating symptoms. These strategies are best carried out by a psychologist, who have a range of specialist techniques that can be tailored according to your needs.
Leonie is a Psychologist who has qualifications in nutrition/dietetics and has specialised in the treatment of medical conditions for around 20 years, including teaching and training other psychologists and GP’s in the use of medical hypnosis. Leonie uses medical hypnosis as part of an overall psychological treatment plan, where the underlying causes of behaviour are explored and emotional responses that are contributing to your gut concerns are appropriately managed.