Saturday, November 21, 2015

Inflammatory Bowel Disease: The Gut-Brain Connection

By: Dr. Kimberley Ramberan, ND

Have you ever felt "sick to your stomach" or had a "gut wrenching" experience?  As a naturopathic doctor, I often encourage patients to explore their "gut feelings" and trust their "gut instincts" especially when  making a difficult decision.  This is one example of the "Gut-Brain Connection".

The connection between the gut and the brain goes both ways.  A "distressed" intestine sends signals to the brain, just as a "distressed" brain sends signals to the gut.  Therefore, your digestive symptoms can both be the cause and the product of anxiety, stress and depression. When emotions are causing your gastro-intestinal (GI) symptoms there is often a delay between physical findings, such as a colonoscopy or abnormalities found in a physical exam.  This delay, in turn, can delay the treatment for a developing disease.

On a personal level, I recall that when I was young whenever I got really upset or nervous my stomach would start to hurt and I would end up having to go to the bathroom more frequently.  As I got older I noticed these symptoms occurred more quickly whenever I was frustrated or overwhelmed. What I also realize now was that my symptoms became more easily triggered by small stressors. When my doctor would ask me if I felt stressed I would often answer "I don't feel stressed" because I had yet to make the link between my digestive symptoms and what was going on in my life.  As time went by my physical tolerance for stress decreased.  The build up of stress culminated in even more significant symptoms such as blood appearing in my stool.  When my doctor did the initial scope and blood work it indicated that everything was fine as he was looking for a physical cause.  It wasn't until months after I started have blood in my stool that the physical manifestation of my emotional stress presented itself. 

As naturopathic doctor is trained to treat the whole person and to recognize the link between the gut and the brain. As such, a naturopathic doctor, particularly when there is an absence of physical findings, would often indicate that a patient's emotional and physical state needs to be examined to address the cause of the symptoms and to prevent the progression of any disease.

File:Breathing.jpgWhen stress and suppressed emotions are the cause of physical symptoms they must be dealt with directly. The nervous system should always be worked on in-conjunction with any digestive symptoms. It is interesting to look at the intestines as the organ that "lets waste go".   Although our gut has the physical capacity to store and rid our body of waste it can also be affected when we choose not to let emotions go.  This could result in you becoming "emotionally constipated"!  Having strong emotions is not a problem.  It is when we have them and we hold them in or suppress them. Our body and our emotions always find a way to be heard and felt.  So, if you are not addressing the emotional distress in your live, your body may consequently become effected physically and pathologically. The bright side is - our gut "feelings" can become another important instrument in our IBD healing tool box.  If we start listening to our gut "feelings" and acknowledge and learn to "let go" of unhealthy emotional patterns we can control another aspect contributing to our gastrointestinal symptoms.  

Just as there is an inflammatory response to stress there can be an anti-inflammatory response to peace within one's self.

Is stress causing your symptoms? 

Ask yourself - " When I'm stressed, where do I feel it my body?"  When you are upset, frustrated or emotional about something what do you do?  Do you release the emotion, or do you distract yourself and focus on something else. Distracting yourself and focusing on other things versus what is bothering you can often result in emotions being held in the body. Emotions that are held in or suppressed can often manifest as: 

Physical symptoms:

Behavioural symptoms:

  • Procrastination
  • Grinding teeth
  • Difficulty completing work
  • Changes in amount of alcohol or food you consume
  • Taking up or increase smoking
  • Increase desire to withdraw from others
  • Racing thoughts

Emotional symptoms:

  • Crying
  • Overwhelming sense of pressure or tension
  • Trouble relaxing
  • Nervousness
  • Anxiety
  • Quick Temper
  • Depression
  • Poor Concentration
  • Trouble remembering things
  • Loss of sense of humour

Understanding the gut-brain connection can provide a valuable approach to any health condition, especially digestive symptoms. To find our more about the gastro-intestinal relationship with the brain please call Naturopathic Foundations Health Clinic at 905-940-2727 to book an appointment with Dr. Kimberley Ramberan, ND.
This is the fourth in a 12-part series on the Irritable Bowel Disease.  We encourage you to check out the other blogs by Dr. Kimberley Ramberan, ND.