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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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