Trust Your Gut
Get Lasting Healing from IBS and Other Chronic Digestive Problems Without Drugs
By Gregory A. Plotnikoff, Mark B. Weisberg
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC Copyright © 2013 Gregory A. Plotnikoff and Mark B. Weisberg
All rights reserved.
Find Your Center
Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.
—Chuang Tzu, Chinese philosopher
Your mind and body make up an integrated system, and when it goes out of balance, you become dysfunctional. The results of this imbalance are obvious in people who perform for a living. An Olympic gymnast who is uncentered crashes on the floor. An actress forgets her lines. A juggler drops the balls. A batter can't hit the baseball. That's why such performers always prepare themselves with some sort of centering technique before the curtain rises or the first pitch is thrown. They get psyched up before the big game to keep their mind calm and focused, and their body flexible and alert. The mind and body must become one. When they stay centered, they perform perfectly—the slugger gets a hit and the gymnast gets a 10.
You need to know where you are headed—and why—before you can become centered.
It's no different if you suffer from chronic intestinal distress. You have an imbalance in your body/mind system, and you can only find lasting relief by becoming centered. No one sees your problem, but you know it preoccupies you way too much of the time. Whenever you walk out the door to go to work or out on a date, you are on stage. The problem is you don't always understand how to center yourself beforehand. You lack the techniques to keep your mind sharp and your body under control. You have been given various pills and been told to relax, but it doesn't exactly work. You never stop worrying, and you never feel in charge of your life.
Centering is the first step in our CORE program. You need to know where you are headed—and why—before you can become centered. That's why we begin the CORE program with centering.
It was hard for Kevin to make it through his day's work because he just couldn't concentrate. His mind was preoccupied with the dread of an imminent attack of gut pain, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. It was hard to sit still, and if he did sit still and happened to notice a sensation in his gut, he'd get quite angry. He would urgently start strategizing how to respond to this latest attack. Should I take a laxative? Should I go for a walk? What the heck am I going to do?
He was so off center that he couldn't even focus when he was at home with his family. His anxiety and worry about his symptoms took over his entire day. All he could do was anticipate the worst.
His bloating was so bad, he bought extra pants to accommodate his expanding waistline. He had a thirty-six-inch waist, but he kept a thirty-eight- and a forty-inch pair on hand to wear on any given day, depending on his level of bloating.
Kevin increasingly saw himself as being damaged. He had no hope that his symptoms could get any better. These cumulative anxieties kept stirring up his nervous system and made the bloating and the pain even more intense. Kevin was totally off balance, but he never even thought about it that way. His physician kept giving him medications for his symptoms and his psychologist kept telling him to relax. Nothing worked, and that just made it worse.
Becoming Centered Is a Process
Telling people to relax doesn't make them relaxed, unless they already know how to relax. If an angry parent is yelling at his son's little league coach during a game and you tell him to relax, he's more likely to punch you than to mellow out. But if you ask a Buddhist monk who has practiced meditation for thirty years to relax, he could easily produce ultra-calm theta waves within a minute or two. Likewise, you can tell a professional opera singer to get centered, and she could become poised with a few deep breaths. But if you told Kevin to get centered, he'd only get more frustrated. He'd be more likely to resemble the angry parent than the Buddhist monk.
Learning how to become centered requires a change of attitude and the acquisition of new skills. It's not a mere intellectual process that only requires thinking—it's an experiential process, an activity. The Olympic gymnast may not be able to verbalize what it is to be centered, but she certainly knows how it feels. Being centered is a psychophysiological state—both physical and emotional. It is also embodied; you can feel it in your gut. If you keep thinking too much and a worrisome dialogue keeps replaying in your head, you're never going to finish your routine.
If you are a gut sufferer and find yourself in a hopeless dead end, the most important step on your path toward centeredness is to learn to trust your gut. This means getting a new attitude to replace the current mixture of hate and fear you have for your gut. As we mentioned earlier, ancient wisdom tells us that the gut is the seat of the emotions and the focal point of human energy. We can all learn much from this idea of the gut as a kind of second brain.
The Ancient Wisdom of the Gut as Center
Our everyday language uses phrases that depict the gut as a source of power, emotions, and intuitive intelligence. We say a person with a strong will has a lot of guts. A brave person performs gutsy actions. We praise one's intestinal fortitude. But those who show great fear and run away at the sight of danger are gutless cowards or yellow bellied. Even a slight fear such as stage fright before a performance can give you butterflies in your stomach. And when we know something through an intuitive hunch, we attribute it to our gut feelings or our gut instinct.
When you exercise or play sports, you can feel that your gut is your center of gravity. Balance is everything when you perform well. In traditional Asian medicine, the gut is the center of the body in another way: it is the source of your life energy. That center also requires a balance, because it is when our energies become imbalanced that we become ill. The gut is our battery, and we must live a lifestyle that keeps it well charged with energy. Because everything in your body/mind system depends on this energy, a lack of chi can affect your mood as well as your performance. In Japan's kampo tradition of medicine, the diagnosis of all illnesses begins with examining the gut.
If you've ever done yoga, Tai Chi, or any of the martial arts, you know what it is to feel that energy course through your body. It has different names—prana in Sanskrit, ITLχITL in Chinese, and ki in Japanese—but it all means the same thing: the vital, life-giving, and life-sustaining force necessary for health. This flow of energy from the center is the basis for success in the martial arts, Zen meditation, flower arranging, Zen archery, and every other mindful activity. Centered practitioners perform in a relaxed and effortless manner with calm and focused minds. Like the best actors and dancers, they make it look easy and natural.
Asia wasn't the only place where the gut was seen as a major center of vitality and emotion. Some translations of the Bible also depict the guts as the seat of strong emotions such as compassion, mercy, intuition, and empathy. For example, in the story about the wisdom of King Solomon, in which he proposes cutting a baby in half to solve an argument between two women who both claim a child, the Cambridge edition of the King James version says "her bowels yearned upon her son" (I Kings 3:26). In our effort to restore your faith in your gut, we are harking back to the wisdom of the ages.
In control Out of control
The Breath Connection
Everyone knows that the gut is the center for the ingestion and digestion of the essentials for life—food and water. But the gut is also the center of our breathing apparatus. Sure, the lungs are what fill with air, but the abdominal muscles are what provide the strength of the bellows that keep us alive. If you watch a baby breathe, you will see her belly expand and deflate. That is natural deep breathing. Asian medicine acknowledged this truth by naming the energy that flows from the center after the breath. Chi, ki, and prana all literally mean "breath." Actors and singers around the world are taught to breathe from the gut. They know that you get more air that way and need to pause for a breath less often. Breathing from the chest is a human invention that takes in less air. Gut breathing is deep breathing, while chest breathing is shallow.
Breathing is one of the few bodily processes that run automatically when we are not paying attention, but yet we can take control of our breath when we want to. This is useful because our rate of breathing correlates directly to our state of mind. Deep breathing makes us calmer and more centered, but when we are uncentered, confused, and anxious, our breath rate and pulse both become more rapid. This breath connection is evident in the case of Carol.
Carol Gets Calmed
Carol was a senior executive who suffered from a long list of medical conditions—constipation, bloating, fatigue, poor concentration, and much more. She sought the advice of many doctors but to no avail. She felt hopeless, and she blamed herself for her condition. "I am a mess. My gut is a mess," she said. "After I eat, I bloat so much, I look six months pregnant. I am so sensitive to everything—if I could just get calmed!"
She was finally referred to Dr. Plotnikoff, who had Carol keep track of her diet and symptoms for two weeks. When she began to read her notes to him, she was so scattered and nonlinear that her efforts to please even sent Dr. Plotnikoff off center. He was too distracted by her frenzied effort to hear what she was trying to say.
After ten minutes, he realized Carol was so agitated that he needed to interrupt. He sensed that she needed to focus. He moved on to the physical exam and told her he wanted to check her pulse. "I took her right hand in mine and placed my left hand over her right wrist to feel her pulse. I noticed that she closed her eyes. I felt her pulse for one minute. Her hand was not cool or damp, as I had expected. Her pulse was a very reasonable seventy-four beats per minute. I switched to her left hand for another thirty seconds."
The energy in the room changed significantly with that simple act of checking her pulse for a minute and a half. They were both able to center. He asked what she was feeling, and Carol reported a sense of calmness and hope, of actually feeling better. He then led her in some breathing exercises focused on breathing into her center. She left the clinic having discovered one approach for centering and grounding herself.
The Emerging Science of the Gut: The Intestinal Brain
Western science has increasingly come to consider the gut as much more than just a digestive tract. In the last twenty years, scientists have researched the neuralhormonal complexity of the gut, and more and more are now referring to it as the second brain. The intestinal nervous system (or enteric nervous system) is composed of a cluster of more than 100 million neurons. It has receptors for more than thirty neurotransmitters—the hormones such as epinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine that allow a neuron to send a message to another neuron. In fact, more than 90 percent of the serotonin receptors and more than 50 percent of the dopamine receptors are in the gut.
Of course, the brain in our head is vastly more complex and has a thousand times more neurons than the intestinal brain. However, like the main brain, the intestinal brain receives, organizes, and transmits information. That means that both brains allow rapid and coordinated responses to changes in the environment, and both brains can regulate our internal organs.
The intestinal brain has two main connections to the main brain: a calming route along the vagus nerve and an energizing route along the spinal cord. Both connections operate automatically as part of the autonomic nervous system. When your body/mind is balanced and centered, the calming and energizing parts of your nervous system are likewise balanced. They are complementary. But when these two systems are out of balance, the result is often major intestinal problems like pain, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation.
When your body/mind is balanced and centered, the calming and energizing parts of your nervous system are likewise balanced.
For chronic intestinal problems in which all the life-threatening diseases and maladies have been ruled out, one major cause of dysfunction is that your two brains have somehow gotten their wires crossed. They have become conditioned—just like Pavlov's dog—to react to a threat when no threat exists. That's why it can't be fixed by a pill. The problem is not a disease but rather something closer to a computer virus. It is a system gone awry. The problem is not in your head; it's in your wiring.
Imagine a feedback loop that is out of control—such as a sound system in an auditorium when someone talks into the microphone and you hear a squealing feedback sound. The problem in this loop is that the microphone is oversensitive and picks up not just the normal voice but also the amplified voice over a loudspeaker. Then the microphone sends the amplified voice back through the amplifier and out the speaker again, only louder and more shrill than ever. In a fraction of a second, the shrieking sound gets so loud, it hurts your ears. The speaker has to stop because nobody can hear her anyway, and then you have to turn down the microphone or move the loudspeaker farther away to interrupt the feedback loop.
In the case of an attack of digestive distress, instead of an oversensitive microphone you have a hypersensitized amygdala—a primitive part of the main brain that decides whether a threat exists. It can take a small, harmless sensation and encode it as threatening. This sends a danger signal to the gut, which reacts by tensing up and causing distress. The intestinal brain sends these amplified distress signals back to the amygdala, which totally freaks out and sends more emergency signals back to the gut, so then the gut goes bonkers as well. The feedback loop has gone berserk and keeps accelerating, but instead of a terrible noise in an auditorium, you get awful pain and distress in your gut.
Sally Sees a Tums
Sally was a young professional who suffered from IBS and had recently gone through a painful diarrhea and constipation cycle. She was on her way to a date and stopped in a convenience store for lip gloss. While there, she saw a shelf of Tums and other digestive remedies. Almost instantly she felt a minor rumble in her abdomen. What just happened?
The main brain and the intestinal brain just had a little scene together. The main brain took in visual input of Tums, which sparked memories of recent diarrhea and constipation, and automatically assigned an emotional evaluation of threat. The oversensitized amygdala exaggerated the severity of symptoms and sent an alarm message via the spinal cord to the intestinal brain, which activated her gut. If the threat is seen as a crisis, the system releases stress hormones such as cortisol or adrenaline—which cause a series of reactions including tightening of the gut muscles, resulting in pain, bloating, cramping, and more. Sally ended up canceling her date—not because she was sick but because she saw a Tums and that set off a feedback loop gone bad.
The good news for Sally and all gut sufferers is that there is an adjustable link in this automatic chain of events. The part of the brain that decides whether a threat exists, the amygdala, is retrainable. On the negative side, the amygdala can be falsely conditioned to arouse a fear response when there is no actual danger, thus setting off a feedback loop gone awry. But on the positive side, the amygdala is the loophole in the main- brain/intestinal-brain circuitry that provides an opening to fix the erroneous programming. The process of fixing this feedback loop is called Neurohormonal Retraining, a key skill you will learn in this book.
Because everything is connected, a variety of imbalances in your body/mind system can have negative effects on the function of your gut. Your connections outside your body comprise your exterior ecology—everything from your personal relationships and home life to your workplace and environmental surroundings. Your interior ecology includes the food you eat, the levels of vitamins and minerals in your system, and the health of your microbiome—the 100 trillion microbes that live inside you. These are the bacteria that help you digest food, strengthen your immune system, and keep you in a good mood. While you may not find it amusing that several pounds of microbes are dwelling in your gut—far outnumbering your human body cells—if your microbiome is imbalanced, it could be a cause of your gut distress. Throughout this book you will discover techniques for balancing your inner and outer ecological systems.
Excerpted from Trust Your Gut by Gregory A. Plotnikoff, Mark B. Weisberg. Copyright © 2013 Gregory A. Plotnikoff and Mark B. Weisberg. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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