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Tackling the Gut Brain Connection

A smiling woman sitting down to eat a healthy green salad.
Tackling the Gut Brain Connection Featured Image

Functional gut disorders are multifaceted and therefore require diverse management strategies. Although identifying food triggers is an important part of symptom improvement, there are also other areas of health and lifestyle to consider when it comes to maintaining a healthy gut.

At Ignite Nutrition, we prioritize 4 key pillars of gut health in IBS management – nutrition, stress, medication, and the gut microbiome. As registered dietitians, we pride ourselves on our knowledge of food and the microbiome especially.

“While we strongly encourage our patients to include mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques in their daily lives, we see that many patients benefit from more targeted therapy practices.”

Arguably the most important pillar of gut health, however, is stress management. While we strongly encourage our patients to include mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques in their daily lives, we see that many patients benefit from more targeted therapy practices. That’s why we also have talented and experiencing registered psychologists on our team!

Our psychologists use their extensive knowledge of neurobiology to help improve the relationship between mind and body. They also helps to empower their clients to overcome difficult experiences. Additionally, the work that they do helps their clients to improve the connection between the brain and the gut. With the goal of improving symptom outcomes -as well as overall emotional wellbeing.

Gut-Brain Connection

There’s no doubt that our brain and gut are linked. Many people actually refer to our gut as our second brain because it has so many neurons! Neurons are the tiny communication channels that transmit messages throughout our bodies, telling us how to feel – neutral, uncomfortable, etc. The brain and the gut are constantly communicating.

That’s why stress, anxiety, or trauma, can alter our digestion for the worse. Even positive stressors can lead to digestive changes! This explains why you might get ‘butterflies’ on a first date or while planning an exciting event.

Let’s be realistic – it is totally normal to experience stress. We all do! However, chronically high levels of stress in the long-term are more associated with negative physiological outcomes. Like increased gut sensations, pain and changes in gut motility. Being continuously under stress actually lowers our tolerance threshold, meaning we activate our ‘fight-or-flight’ response more often. As a result, our ability to rest and digest becomes less and less.

But not to worry, we have the power to reverse this negative cycle! However, it takes some practice to help lower your level of stress and ultimately get to the root of your distress. This is where working with a professional is SO beneficial. A psychologist or counsellor can use their extensive knowledge to choose appropriate strategies that are customized to your specific stressors. Curious to learn more? Let’s review some different strategies that our psychologists often use with their patients.

Ignite Nutrition in Calgary, Alberta is thrilled to add a digestive health psychologist, Kirsten White to our team!

Somatic Therapy

The word somatic literally means ‘relating to the body’. Somatic therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on the connection between mind and body. Somatic work is a holistic therapy that uses a combination of mind-body exercises, physical techniques, and talk therapy to help improve both emotional and physical wellbeing.

When doing somatic work, the therapist pays attention to how the body physically reacts to memories and experiences and will work from there. Many times we don’t even realize we have physical reactions to these things! However, a trained professional can identify body language shifts, tension in the face, changes in breath, and other subtle signs of distress. From there, they provide specific strategies for you to utilize during those difficult situations. Like deep breathing, meditation, massage, or other physical movements.1

One type of somatic therapy modality is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR is an evidence-based approach that helps individuals process distressing experiences – both recent and from the past. During this approach, patients work with an EMDR-trained psychologist to work through several different phases. In short, these phases involve conversation, developing strategies for handling distress, and rapid eye movements. These are all used to help us rewire certain memories. Over time, this can help you to process and sort out negative associations. Your therapist will help you to reprocess and replace these with more positive thoughts and feelings.2 For example, someone with a history of abuse who felt dejected may finish EMDR therapy with the firm belief, “I am resilient, strong, and worthy”.

In terms of gut health, this is SUPER interesting. We see that many of our clients come to us with negative stress from a variety of things. Everything from personal trauma and complex relationships to more food-centric concerns like food anxiety or using the washroom in public. By shifting negative thoughts and feelings to more positive ones, we are making the communication between the brain and the gut more positive. This shift can improve our window of tolerance. Thus reducing inappropriate activation of our sympathetic nervous system – ie. less fight-or-flight thinking and more resting and digesting!

So are you ready to get your gut symptoms under control? Working with a trained psychologist or counsellor can help in the journey to managing your digestive symptoms –  therapy is often the missing link in many people’s digestive health journey!

Our psychologists also specialize in

  • motivational interviewing
  • mindfulness
  • behavioural therapies
  • Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy

Our team takes pride in our client-centred and holistic approach to therapy and ultimately wants to work with you to release old patterns and create positive new ones! Give us a call at 403-808-2348 or book online here today.

Ignite Nutrition in Calgary, Alberta is thrilled to add a digestive health psychologist, Kirsten White to our team!

Categorized: Food Relationship, Gut Health & IBS

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  1. Somatic Therapy, Psychology Today. Accessed online on 6/3/2019 at https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/therapy-types/somatic-therapy

  2. What is EMDR?, EMDR Institute Inc. Accessed online on 6/5/2019 at http://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/