How your mind con­trols di­ges­tion


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: calm­ing smells, sooth­ing sounds (like mu­sic), a beau­ti­ful view, even tex­tures like a favourite fab­ric can help keep the amyg­dala calm.

Olwen An­der­son is a natur­opath and coun­sel­lor. www.ol­we­nan­der­

The amyg­dala knows what’s hap­pen­ing around you even be­fore the con­scious brain is work­ing out what your senses are com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

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