Digestion: is it all in the mind?
LIVING NATURALLY with Olwen Anderson
THERE'S a very unhelpful statement frequently tossed at those suffering irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS: "it's all in your mind”.
Mercifully less nowadays, as we understand more of how our bodies function. IBS isn't all in your mind of course, but there's a good reason why those calming activities you're advised to participate in make a difference. What makes them challenging is that much of what happens with your body is outside your conscious control.
There's a section of your brain, the amygdala, which constantly scans the environment for potential threats to your safety. The amygdala knows what's happening around you even before the conscious brain is working out what your senses are communicating. This is why you can sometimes feel distressed even before you encounter 'that' smell, the one that reminds you of an unpleasant event earlier in your life. Standing by for instructions from the amygdala are your sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. The former gets everything in your body geared up to escape from a threat and switches off digestion; the latter allows your body to calm down, rest, and resume digestion. The balance between the two is rather like two people taking turns to drive a car.
If the amygdala says so, your sympathetic nervous system grabs the controls of involuntary muscles like your heartbeat and breathing rate. Only bodily processes designed to help you escape get energy, so digestion is switched off or diarrhoea induced. Once the amygdala has decided the threat has passed, it permits the parasympathetic nervous system to take back the controls. This is a much calmer driver of your nervous system, allowing you to rest and continue digesting, quietly, unless the amygdala decides there's another threat to address.
But what if your amygdala is over-reactive, imagines a threat is always present, and keeps the sympathetic nervous system in the driver's seat? Then you can expect digestive problems: like inadequate secretion of digestive enzymes leading to heartburn, mistiming of bowel motions leading to IBS and the like.
This is where stress- busting activities support better digestion.
So although it's not all in your mind, what's in your mind certainly has a powerful impact. Engage your senses to soothe your amygdala so it doesn't hand over to the sympathetic nervous system: calming smells, soothing sounds (like music), a beautiful view, even certain textures like a favourite fabric can help keep the amygdala calm.
Olwen Anderson is a naturopath and counsellor and a columnist with the Tweed Daily News. Contact her at www.olwenanderson.com.au