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The connection between worry and gut health

The connection between worry and gut health

Worry and resulting anxiety can negatively impact our physical health, with the gastrointestinal system often experiencing distress. Functional gastrointestinal disorders - disorders that have no apparent physical cause - affect 35 to 70 per cent of people at some point in life. So how exactly does what's happening in the mind impact how we feel in the gut?

The connection between worry and gut health

Life-sustaining functions are regulated through the autonomic nervous system. This complex network of nerves has two major divisions – the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the “fight or flight response”, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body down after the danger has passed. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems interact with another component of the autonomic nervous system – the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is an arrangement of neurons and supporting cells throughout the gastrointestinal tract, and it’s sometimes referred to as the “second brain”.

Therefore, the brain and the gastrointestinal system are intimately connected. Psychologist Gwendoline Smith refers to this relationship in her new publication The Book of Overthinking. Smith quotes Dr Emeran Mayer’s book The Mind-Gut Connection, which states, “The connection between the two brains lies at the heart of many afflictions, both physical and psychiatric e.g. anxiety, depression, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome. Research also shows that the majority of individuals with anxiety and depression will also have disturbance in their gastrointestinal system.”

Smith’s book offers tools and strategies based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for people struggling with worry to better manage their feelings, which could in turn help people address their functional gastrointestinal disorders. “Of course, if there’s a physiological cause of something, then I’m not naive. I’m not going to say, ‘Ah well, therapy would be able to fix that’. That’s not true,” says Smith. But she has noticed this brain-gut connection in her own work with clients. “I’m not saying it’s easy, because people do want to go back to that physical origin. It’s difficult for them to get their head around it – ‘What are you saying? It’s in my head? No way is this in my head, not what I’ve been through’.”

Smith can recount numerous experiences with clients who have managed to alleviate gut problems by addressing their mental health. “I’ve had people come to see me that have had scans, they’ve had a million and one ‘-oscopies’, and the last place they’re going to turn up is to see a shrink,” says Smith. “But when I think of the number of people I’ve treated with significant histories of irritable bowel, and gastrointestinal problems, it’s phenomenal.”

Finding strategies to deal with stressors in your life could go a long way in easing your digestive discomfort. Click here to see MiNDFOOD’s tips to manage anxiety.

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