Food For Thought: Can What You Think Change How Your Gut Feels?
By: James E. “Jed” Foster, Jr., MA-LMFT
The Mind-Gut Axis:
Have you ever had “butterflies in your stomach” before an event? Have you lived through a “gut-wrenching” experience? Have you ever had to make an important decision based on “gut instinct?” Have relationship struggles ever resulted in a “knot in your stomach?” If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you’re already attuned to the mind-gut connection. There is a two-way superhighway between your brain and your gut. Science has shown us that a “second brain” lives in our gut that both sends signals to and takes cues from our brain in a continual “dance.” Some gastrointestinal disorders, and their accompanying symptoms, can cause – and/or be caused by – interruptions, agitations, and changes along the mind-gut axis. For example, particularly sudden and stressful experiences can shut down or even reverse the digestive process as our body and brain move into the “fight or flight” response. Another example presents itself when digestive pain or discomfort causes anxiety that keeps us from engaging in activities, work, and play, which can adversely affect our quality of life. Several factors – food choice, activity, disease, environment, even your thoughts and behaviors – can make a big difference in your overall health and well-being.
If problems in the gut can cause psychological challenges, and if those challenges can, in turn, effect overall gut performance and health, then it follows that targeting the mind through therapy can and will bring about changes in our gut. Gut-directed therapies can help alleviate some of the GI symptoms that keep us in pain and discomfort, which can prevent us from engaging fully in life. At Comprehensive Gastrointestinal Health, we’re committed to an evidence-based, multidisciplinary approach to your GI health and overall well-being; which is why we offer therapeutic interventions that have been shown to be effective in treating the symptoms of functional gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and functional dyspepsia. Gut-directed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Hypnotherapy are among the most effective therapies used in GI medicine. They work by helping patients retrain their brains to react to and cope with symptoms and stimuli differently than they have in the past.
CBT, simply stated, aims at changing one’s patterns of thinking and the maladaptive behaviors formed around those thought processes. For example, an IBS patient suffering from anxiety and depression may feel gut discomfort and tell themselves “I can’t leave the house today.” The resulting behavior may be to isolate, which may exacerbate the depressive symptoms, which subsequently adversely affect the gut, creating a negative cycle that can lead to poor sleeping and eating habits, and result in a decrease in overall well-being. With CBT, the therapist and patient strategize new, positive responses to the symptoms – like, “I can still get a few things done despite not feeling well,” which can lead to an entirely different pattern of behavior that gets the patient out of the house and raises personal productivity.
In Gut-directed hypnotherapy, the clinician works with the patient on progressive relaxation, healthy and protective imagery, creating automatic behavioral response through suggestions, breath work, and mindfulness. While shown to be effective on its own, hypnotherapy also serves as a powerful adjunct to CBT, helping reinforce new ways of thinking and putting them to use almost automatically as a response to external stressors and symptoms from GI disorders. One of the leading researchers in gut-directed hypnotherapy, Olafur S. Palsson, PsyD, reviewed existing gut-directed hypnotherapy evidence and demonstrated the following reasons for gastroenterologists to suggest hypnotherapy as a course of action for their patients:
- At least half of patients who have been unresponsive to the usual medical care approaches can be expected to beneﬁt.
- A treatment course of 7 to 12 sessions, typically delivered over a time period of 2 or 3 month period, is sufﬁcient to produce marked symptom improvement.
- All of the central symptoms of IBS, including abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea, and bloating, can be expected to improve substantially in treatment responders.
- The treatment commonly provides broader beneﬁts than bowel symptom relief, with “positive side effects” often including marked enhancement in quality of life and reduction in non-GI symptoms.
- Patients who respond to treatment will in the majority of cases retain their improvement for years after treatment (Palsson, 2014)
Comprehensive Gastrointestinal Health wants to give you the best options available to increase your level of overall well-being and improve your quality of life through strategic management of your systems. CBT and Hypnotherapy are a proven, integral part of that strategy. Please give us a call and make your appointment to begin feeling better soon.