Gut Instinct-- Finding Stillness
Let’s review the 6 main underlying triggers I have uncovered that were responsible for activation of Crohn’s Disease in my body:
1) Genetics ✓
2) Repeated Gastroenteritis ✓
3) Overactive Stress Response and Sympathetic Dominance
4) Post Infectious IBS and SIBO
6) Lack of clear boundaries between others and myself
We have discussed the role of genetics and repeated bowel infections in a previous entry. Please see the entry titled “The Journey Back” if you missed it.
A quick overview of the digestive tract and the role of the nervous system in it’s management will help us understand how an Overactive Stress Response and Sympathetic Dominance can play a role in the onset of digestive disorders.
The human digestive tract is a complex combination of organs and glands that play a foundational role in the maintenance of health. When you have a digestive tract that functions well and performs its role without issue, it is nothing more than background noise in the overarching course of your life. When you feel hungry you eat, and when you feel the need to have a bowel movement you go to the bathroom and then move on with your day. When you have a digestive tract that is dysfunctional, however, it becomes a constant thorn in the side of your daily existence.
Digestion begins in the mouth when food first comes into contact with enzymes produced by your salivary glands. This is the first step in a healthy digestive process that will trigger an important cascade of events: the breakdown of these food items into their component nutritional parts, the absorption of essential nutrients, and the elimination of unusable waste products via a bowel movement.
There are many steps along this process of digestion where things could unexpectedly go wrong and result in mal-digestion or disruption in the balance of the digestive environment.
The most important underlying truth to understand is that your digestion is regulated by your nervous system. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the part of the nervous system responsible for control of the bodily functions not consciously directed, such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestive processes.
The ANS has two settings: Sympathetic (SNS) and Parasympathetic (PNS). The SNS is known as the fight or flight response and the PNS as the rest and digest response in the body. The critical understanding is that you must be in a rest and digest or PNS state in order for your digestive process to turn ON. When you are in an active SNS or fight or flight response, your digestion will be turned OFF.
What is the take home message here?
Digestive enzyme production in the stomach, pancreas and liver, as well as stomach and intestinal wall muscle contractions that move food through your system, will not happen unless you are relaxed. If you are stressed or agitated when you eat, you WILL NOT be able to break down your food and move it through your system properly. An overactive stress response and SNS Dominance are the #1 cause of uncomplicated IBS in my clinical experience.
Will SNS dominance on its own result in the development of an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s?
The short answer is no, but it is definitely an underlying aggravating factor that needs to be addressed in order for you to truly recover and heal your digestion.
How do I know if I have an overactive stress response?
Here are some signs to watch for that could indicate SNS dominance:
Shallow breathing or unconscious breath holding
Increased heart rate or palpitation
Poor quality sleep: Insomnia or night waking
Increased muscle tension
Increased inflammation and frequent illness
What can I do to help balance my stress response?
Avoid or minimize caffeine and sugar if your intake is high
Spend time in nature
Discover what brings you joy and make time for that in your life
Develop meaningful connections/relationships with others
Create space for stillness in your day: turn off phone, text, email, etc
Set a consistent sleep/wake routine
Meditation or Breathing exercises
Counseling or Coaching to help learn mind and emotional management tools
Evaluate your boundaries with others
Simplify your life