What Butterflies Can Teach Us About the Mind/Body Connection: A Shrink’s Guide to Listening to Your Gut

What Butterflies Can Teach Us About the Mind/Body Connection: A Shrink's Guide to Listening to Your Gut

We all know the expression “butterflies in my stomach” and we all tend to agree on what that feeling signifies for us at a psychological level.  We use this expression to describe feeling nervous, anxious, or excited.  But did you know that the butterflies you feel in your “stomach” are actually representative of a complex and mutually reciprocal relationship between your brain and your gut?

There has been a growing understanding and exploration by psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians and researchers about the role our gut bacteria plays on our mood—most notably the experience of anxiety.

The stats.

The statistics on anxiety are staggering and trending north each passing year. Consider these stats: According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (and NIMH) anxiety is the most common mental illness in America today.

An estimated 40 million adults (18 and older) or 18 percent of the population endorse symptoms of anxiety (not to mention one out of eight children). Treatment of anxiety accounts for one-third of the $148 billion dollars spent annually on mental illnesses in America.

In other words, we spend $42 billion a year on treatment of anxiety disorders in America. Women are 60 percent more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than our male counterparts. These numbers are terrifying to me as a clinician, a woman and a mother.

The gut-brain connection. How does it work?

The symbiotic relationship between our gut health and how we feel is a hot topic of discussion and research. Scientists, physicians, and mental health practitioners are increasingly aware of the important relationship between the balance of “critters” in our gut and how we experience our brain, mood and emotions. So, before we begin to discuss what we can do to optimize this important relationship, let’s explore the underlying processes.

From a holistic vantage point our gut is known as the “second brain” and there are structural/anatomical reasons for this reference. The “second brain,” known scientifically as the enteric nervous system, consists of sheaths of neurons located in the walls of our gut. We refer to these sheaths as the vagus nerve and it runs from our esophagus to our anus, roughly nine meters long.

Did you know that:

  • The bacteria, fungi and viruses that make up your body’s microflora outnumber your body’s cells by 10 to 1.
  • 95 percent of the body’s serotonin supply is found in our bowels.
  • The vagus nerve contains 100 million neurons, which is more neurons than the spinal cord or peripheral nervous system hold.
  • There are over 100 trillion bacterial cells contained within the gut.
  • Our gut sends far more information to our brain than the other way around.

When the precarious balance of bacteria in our gut becomes disturbed we often experience symptoms associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other gastrointestinal related disorders. These symptoms are likely to start out as complaints of bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea. When this occurs the domino effect of issues becomes inevitable and thus begins the cascading symptom patterns that plague tens of millions of Americans struggling with GI related disorders.

Due to the interconnectedness of our brain and enteric nervous system, via the vagus nerve, once our gut bacteria is out of whack, we are vulnerable to a pattern of emotional discomfort, usually marked by increasing episodes of anxiety and depression.

How does our gut bacteria become so unbalanced? 

Here are a few of the many ways in which we accidentally (and sometimes unavoidably) contribute to this pattern of disturbance:

  • Excessive and unmanaged stress;
  • Too much use of antibiotics;
  • Prolonged use of steroids
  • Intestinal infections
  • High sugar; low fiber diet (in other words, Standard American Diet (SAD))
  • Regular consumption of alcohol

If you are reading this and you find yourself relating to this content, I encourage you to seek out professional help to better understand what these symptoms mean for your unique constitution.

The research.

There is a bourgeoning area of interest and research exploring the use of probiotics to treat a wide variety of mental illnesses. Pharmaceutical companies are attempting to create a new line of psychiatric medications referred to as Psychobiotics, but this field of research is still in its infancy.

There is a growing body of research that is exploring strain specific probiotics to help mitigate acute symptoms of anxiety. For example, in clinical trials involving the study of mice, Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus Rhamnosus have shown to help normalize anxiety-like behavior. 

There are also a growing number of small human studies exploring the efficacy of using probiotics to combat anxiety symptoms. The preliminary data from these small studies echo the success from the rat-based research. In one study, 22 men reported feeling “less stress” after taking the strain specific probiotic for a month. Additionally, their lab results revealed lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol while under duress. Both of these strains appear to work on the GABA receptors, an inhibitory neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of acute anxiety. GABA is the receptor influenced when you take a benzodiazepine such as Xanax or Ativan.

My emphasis within my clinical practice is to encourage my patients to explore the ways in which they can participate in healing their own bodies through the careful understanding of what their symptoms are telling them about their own unique emotional and physical constitution. Through seeking to find solutions that are rooted in personal empowerment, we start to shift our relationship to accountability, responsibility and personal growth. So, that being said, there is a lot we can do right from the comfort of our own home to start the process of realigning the balance of our gut flora. As you can imagine, most of it involves cleaning up our diet, being mindful of the relationship between food and mood, exploring our habits and patterns, and better metabolizing our emotions.

So, that being said, there is a lot we can do right from the comfort of our own home to start the process of realigning the balance of our gut flora. As you can imagine, most of it involves cleaning up our diet, being mindful of the relationship between food and mood, exploring our habits and patterns, and better metabolizing our emotions.

Listening To Your Gut. What can I do to heal my gut, mind and brain?

Below are action steps you can take in an effort to begin the process of healing your gut, mind and brain:It generally takes a minimum of 90 days for these suggestions to be effective:

It generally takes a minimum of 90 days for these suggestions to be effective:

  • Eliminate sugars: The “fake” sugars. We are not talking about eliminating whole fruits. Rather, cutting out the baked goods, cookies, ice cream, and store bought sugary products that wreak havoc on the bacteria in our gut and lead to cyclical patterns of emotional and physical cravings.
  • Eliminate all simple starches and reduce intake of even complex starches. The goal is to reduce the amount of yeast producing foods we consume.
  • Reduce or stop drinking alcohol for the 90-day period. If this is difficult for you to do, observe the nature that “relationship.”
  • Add in fermented and living foods. Please try to avoid store bought yogurts even though they are considered fermented. These products are loaded with sugars and often end up exacerbating imbalance.
  • Consume copious amounts of veggies. Attempt to eat 6-9 cups of vegetables per day. Avoid use of store bought dressings etc., which are loaded with sugar and preservatives.
  • Consume foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids (walnuts, salmon, flax, some types of squash, etc.).
  • Aim to consume local and organic sources of animal protein. Doing so will reduce your ingestion of unwanted antibiotics and feed based chemicals.
  • Discuss with your practitioner if the use of a probiotic or prebiotic will benefit your unique situation. A probiotic introduces specific strains of good bacteria, while a prebiotic introduces carbohydrates that serve as food the bacteria already present in your gut.
  • Exercise. More days than not. Enough to sweat. The goal is to find joy in it. But if you hate it, that’s okay. Do it anyway.
  • Drink mostly water.
  • Work with a skilled psychologist or mental health professional to metabolize past trauma, identify faulty thought patterns, and implement mindfulness- based skills to better manage your central nervous system.
  • Implement a daily mindfulness/meditation practice. The goal is observe your mind, not to clear it or control your thoughts. Simple observation and balanced breathing. This is a restful and restorative way to calm the central nervous system and recalibrate the vagus nerve. Mindfulness based relaxation has a myriad of benefits and has been shown to participate in changing neural pathways of emotional and physical pain. I suggest starting with a ten minute morning practice and increase it to twenty minutes once you feel the “mindfulness muscle” is more robust.

Exploring the relationship between our mood and our gut bacteria reveals an interconnected relationship between the mind, brain, and body, via the enteric nervous system and vagus nerve. This relationship is the foundation of why it is critical to address your emotional discomfort from a holistic and integrated approach to your wellness.

The good news is that because we now know and understand that there is a connection between the mind and body, we have the knowledge and tools to make immediate changes that will yield profound, albeit subtle results in how we feel. The better we understand and participate in our own sense of wellness and empowerment the more likely we are to embark on change that starts from within.


About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis

Sarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at DrSarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

[irp posts=”1675″ name=”Our ‘Second Brain’ – And Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Mood”]

4 Comments

jamie

Thanks! Have you done any study on the effects of glysophate? It destroys gut bacteria and has been labeled a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization. It is on/ and in most GMOs and is used to dry out most non organic grains. It has been suggested that glysophate might be responsible for the huge increase in gluten intolerence and other digestive disorders. Since most of our meat comes from animals fed GMOs, our meat is yet another problem. It is so wide spread that it is found in the blood and urine of most people as well as in breast milk. If you’re not familiar with Stephanie Senoff from MIT, she has done extensive research about glysohate and disease.

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Catherine Ruckert

A very interesting article, especially the reference to the vagus nerve. The influence of the vagus (para-sympathetic innervation) is crucial in maintaining balance in the autonomic nervous system. Increasing vagal tone is the key part of Heart Rate Variability training; another excellent stress management technique. Thank you for putting together another piece of the puzzle. Keep up the good work.

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Rebecca

Excellent articles – well written and informative!!!!
Thank you!!!!!

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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