It seems that June and July have been strewn with crises and trauma in various arenas and places around the world and I, like many others, have been touched by these on a personal and vicarious level.
The upside/downside of being a psychologist is the tendency to analyze the self and I couldn’t help but analyse the way my body responded to the trauma. It was a very normal fight/flight response that is expected in such circumstances but what really stood out for me in the context of my recent posts on the different brains was the shutdown of my digestion system (enteric brain).
This is a very normal response of the human body in reaction to trauma as the digestive system can rob the body of much needed energy and other resources at this time. There is a very direct relationship between stress and the gut. I am sure you have all felt butterflies when nervous or excited or a hollow feeling, or the feeling of a rock sitting in the gut when anxious. The detrimental impact of this occurs when people live in low-grade, persistent fight, flight or freeze states on a regular basis due to ongoing stress.
The biology of the gut-brain relationship:
There is a very powerful nerve called the vagus nerve that runs from the brain, down through the chest and into the abdomen. “Vagus” in Latin means wandering and this bundle of nerves wonders through the torso connecting all the organs as well the digestive tract (and beyond, relating to a number of other functions).
It was initially believed that the head brain mainly sent messages to the organs and digestive system etc. but research has shown that in fact the messages tend to mostly run in the other direction. To one extent the head brain response to trauma results in the shutdown of the gut. However, the flip side is that if the gut is distressed it sends messages to the head brain and we then have an experience of that distress via the head brain. i.e. imbalance in the gut (enteric) brain can result in an experience of emotional distress/stress. A viscous loop can be set up.
In relation to the above the vagus nerve also plays a major role in the parasympathetic response i.e. the ability to relax again after the fight/flight response has been initiated. The majority of dopamine and serotonin (needed for balanced mood) is created in the enteric brain and assists with this relaxation response. So that relaxation response is greatly impacted by the state of the gut.
A stress/trauma response is a body and brain experience and to really work with encouraging the balancing and calming parasympathetic response we need to focus on the whole body.
A gut approach to healing trauma and stress:
Instead of only focusing on the head brain to deal with trauma and stress rather nurture and nourish the gut brain.
First, encourage a relaxation response through meditation exercises, breathing and grounding that draw awareness to your lower body (feet, legs and pelvis) and bringing calm into the gut. Grounding can be as simple as standing outside for 10 minutes a day (barefoot), or inside on concrete or wooden flooring with no insulation, and drawing the energy of the earth upwards into the gut brain.
No matter how much emphasis you put on gut health and eating right if you are still in a state of fight and flight (or freeze) then you will fighting a losing battle. Reverse your approach and focus on relaxation, restoring gut health, and nurturing yourself and from there you will find you will be far more capable of managing stress and trauma then you were before.
Second, when the gut is out of balance the microbiome is out of balance and this can be greatly assisted by the use of probiotics and eating fermented foods which are rich in probiotics.
Third, find someone who can guide you towards a healthier diet based on YOU as well as your current state of health. I have recently started to experience great success in working directly with a number of functional medical doctors who are able to guide clients towards improved gut health, a healthy and nourishing diet and the right supplements for improved enteric brain functioning. Together with the work I do with clients this approach has greatly increased success in improved mood and general wellbeing.
Fourth, use essential oils to induce a relaxation response and to calm the digestive system. Lavender and chamomile can assist with relaxation and peppermint can assist digestive complaints. Creating a blend to rub on the abdomen can be very beneficial. If you have not used essential oils before please seek some guidance on use of essential oils.
Fourth, BodyTalk is a healing modality that can help to rectify the imbalance between the head brain, heart brain and gut brain and reactivate these centers as well as encourage a relaxation response in the body. There are other alternative healing modalities out there that can assist as well.
The most amazing aspect of healing the gut is that as balance is restored in the gut we become more able to intuitively know what will be beneficial for us in terms of nutrition and nourishment and can trust ourselves in this process of healing and supporting gut health. With this trust comes a greater sense of trusting the world and feeling safe. A balanced gut can take you a far way towards a more balanced approach to life, a greater sense of being nurtured and a general sense of safety.
As for that chocolate or those cupcakes….if you were worried I was going to suggest those must stop altogether I am not saying you have to restrict everything ‘bad’ for you. That too can be stressful, if not traumatic in its right! It’s about nurturing and nourishing yourself in line with your intuition and balance. My intuition just loves a block or two of Lindt dark chocolate to help nourish me when most needed!