The Mind-Gut Connection and IBD

Do you ever wonder why you get “butterflies” in your stomach when you get nervous, or wonder where the term “my stomach is tied in knots” came from? It’s because we have a second brain! Yep, you read correctly, we have two physical brains. Everyone is familiar with the brain enclosed in our skulls but most people do not know that we have a second brain in our gut. In fact, over one half of our nerve cells are located in our gut. Our “gut brain” also contains neurons and neurotransmitters just like those found in our head.

Our two brains communicate with each other via a major nerve, called the vagus nerve, that extends down from the base of our brain all the way into our abdomen. Because of this, our two brains directly influence each other. This is why when we are nervous or stressed out about something we feel it in our stomach as well.

How is it that we have two brains?
During early fetal development, both our “gut”, which consists of our esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine (colon), and our primary brain start to develop from the same developing tissue. Once that piece of tissue divided, one piece grew into our central nervous system (our brain and cranial nerves) and the other piece grew into our enteric nervous system (the “gut”). During later stages of development, these two brains became joined via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest of all our cranial nerves and is responsible for carrying a wide assortment of signals from our brain to our gut.

Because of the direct connection between our brain and our gut, the condition in which our gut is in has a profound effect on our psychological state. If our gut doesn’t feel good, usually our mind doesn’t either.

Your emotions and your “gut brain”
Feeling stressed, anxious or depressed can have a significant effect on our “gut brain”. Everyone at some point has experienced the connection between our emotions and our gut. When we are stressed, our stomach “ties itself in knots”. When we are nervous or anxious we get “butterflies” in our stomach or our stomach gets “fluttery”. The connection between our emotions and our “gut brain” can also lead to stomach upset, including constipation and diarrhea, indigestion, ulcers or spasms.

How does the mind/gut connection affect your inflammatory bowel disease?
Some of the research related to the mind/gut connection has found that dysfunction along the pathways between the mind and the gut may contribute to some of the symptoms of IBD and IBS such as the abdominal pain and diarrhea. When nerves in the gut experience excessive sensitivity they can trigger changes in the brain. Thoughts and feelings as well as activation of the parts of the brain that have to do with anxiety or arousal can stimulate exaggerated gut responses.

So, how can you control your mind/gut connection to help improve the symptoms of your IBD?
Although it is known that Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are definitely physically based and not psychologically based, there are actions that can be taken that may have a direct impact on the communication between the brain and the gut. One of these is cognitive behavioral therapy, which concentrates on the relationship between our thoughts and feelings. Connected with cognitive behavioral therapy are relaxation techniques, which can help to turn off the stress response that contributes to our mind/gut connection. So read about the relaxation techniques in my last post and start putting those to good use!