06/30/2015 05:16 EDT | Updated 06/30/2015 05:59 EDT

How Your Mind and Gut Are Connected

Shutterstock / Kaspars Grinvalds

Inside our digestive tract lies the enteric nervous system, a complex web of neurons that links the gut to the spinal cord and brain.

Nicknamed the "gut-brain axis" this connection often guides the instincts we experience deep within the belly. It also means that what's going on in our stomachs can impact our brain function, and our thoughts, feelings and emotions can influence the daily hum of digestion (including the amount of bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation we experience).

Emotional stress is often linked with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but patients with other digestive issues like Crohn's, colitis, GERD, ulcers, pancreatitis, diverticulitis and others experience anxieties that affect their symptoms.

There is nothing more frustrating being told, "It's all in your head." It's not true, and yet it's also kinda true. Consider this: given what we are learning about the pathway between the digestive tract and the brain, how do we know what came first, the chicken or the egg? Was it a physical disruption in the belly that began your troubles (and subsequent stress), or the other way around?

Regardless of the origin of our digestive issues, I think we can all agree that all kinds of stress (physical, emotional, financial, etc.) have an impact on the expression and progression of diseases.

The hormones that we produce during stress -- adrenaline and cortisol -- can be very damaging to the body. When stress hormones are running around, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered and we simply can't digest food properly.

Stress also impacts sleep, mood, weight, the cardiovascular system, sex hormones and blood sugar, so there are plenty of reasons to focus our attention on reducing it in any way we can (for more information, check out my Stress-Free Eating e-book).

Here are a few helpful strategies you can employ to help you take "control" your stomach using your mind.

Explore Deep Breathing (or any kind of meditative practise)

Taking deep breaths gets us out of that uneasy "fight-or-flight" mode, which helps to calm the digestive tract. Certain yoga poses also combined breath with movement to help massage or "wring out" the belly, leading to better digestion.

You don't have to get your "om" on for hours to profit from deep breathing. Start off with taking five deep breaths a day and I'll bet you'll begin to notice a difference. Breathe from your belly, not your chest, ensuring that your stomach expands like a balloon, and go as slowly as you can. Once you've got your five breaths down pat, you can challenge yourself to double or even triple your count.

Eat When You're Relaxed

When we're feeling stressed or anxious, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. The blood starts flowing to our arms and legs so we can get ready to run. This means that our energy and blood flow is diverted away from the digestive tract, which is ruled by our parasympathetic nervous system. We need to be at rest to digest -- and when we're stressed out, digestion is not a priority.

Eat Mindfully

If possible, don't eat when you are feeling rushed. Try to avoid eating while standing up, walking, driving or at your desk, as these activities make it very difficult for you to focus on your food.

Eating mindfully means incorporating attentive practises like chewing, eating slowly, sitting at a table, noticing your food's appearance and aroma, and being grateful for what's on your plate.

Be Kind to Yourself

All the deep breathing in the world won't help if you're constantly beating yourself up about your failed relationship or the way your butt looks in those jeans. No matter what stage you're at in your health, remember to be kind and compassionate. Go for a walk. Have a cup of tea. Read a book, listen to music, go dancing, have a massage -- whatever is going to help you feel recharged.

Celebrate the Positives

It can be easy to get lost in the horizon, always looking ahead and focusing on what isn't working in your healing process. It's important to celebrate every little victory. Did you experience one night of interrupted sleep? Fantastic! Only had three bouts of diarrhea today instead of your usual six? Extraordinary!

Remember, all we really have is the present, so try to focus on the things that you're thankful for. I'm betting you have numerous blessings!


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