Having Crohns disease, I am so drawn to the physiological workings of the human body. I love to understand what's happening inside my own body and I became quite obsessed with reading and learning after my diagnosis. I wanted to know everything I could to be able to give myself the best chance of managing this new chronic condition. I became fascinated with the immune and nervous system and how our brain can directly communicate with our gut. We often take for granted our amazing bodies, spending all of our time in our minds and forgetting that our bodies have their own intelligence, our innate wisdom. With all of our systems constantly working away under the surface to keep us in balance, our bodies are wiser than we are but sadly we seem to have lost the connection to our inner intelligence because our minds and our ego are so much louder.
How are the mind and gut connected?
The brain - gut axis is a bidirectional link between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system. Both our brain and gut can connect to each other through direct and indirect pathways. There are a few different pathways of connection;
The hypothalamus is an area of the brain which helps to maintain homeostasis in the body.
When the brain perceives a threat, the hypothalamus releases CRF (corticotropin release factor) which is like the start button to our stress response - stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released into the body, which then stimulates a gut reaction affecting the cells and microbes within the gut.
The Autonomic Nervous System has nerve pathways from the brain to the gut and modulates most of the activity in the gut. There are 2 strands to the Autonomic nervous system - sympathetic (fight/ flight/ freeze) and para sympathetic (rest and digest). If we are experiencing a perceived threat, the sympathetic nervous system will kick in, sending signals which inhibit the gut. When we are really activated, the bowel can actually completely stop working. It will shut down to send energy to other parts of the body that may need it to either fight or flight. If we are relaxed and in a state of rest and digest, the nerves will be stimulating the gut.
Around 70% of the Immune system is located in the gut, immune cells respond to activity in the gut and can communicate back to the brain.
The less well known Enteric Nervous System helps regulate digestion. This system has nerve cells wrapped around the intestine throughout the whole digestive tract and sensors from the cells within the gut which send signals back to the brain. It's sometimes referred to as a "second brain" because it relies on the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters that are found in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
The brain signals to the gut and the gut signals back in many ways - modulating gut functions and emotions.
What we feel the gut feels
It's not just stress in the brain that triggers the gut. When we feel emotions like fear, anger, joy or excitement within our brain, our face usually shows what we are feeling. This is because our brain sends out specific signal patterns to the muscles within our face in order to express our emotions, and every emotion has a corresponding expression.
Remarkably this communication from the brain to the muscles in our face, is also happening from the brain to our digestive tract. The signals are sent and the digestive system reponds!
The gut mirrors every emotion that arises in the brain. Contractions within the digestive system can increase or decrease depending on what emotions are coming from our mind. Similar to how you feel if you have butterflies in the gut or feel a “gut feeling.”
“The gut is the theatre in which the drama of emotions from the mind play out”. Emeran Mayer, The mind - gut connection.
I love this quote, it really helps me to connect to the body working as a whole and that our minds are not separate from our bodies. When the drama plays out in the theatre of the gut, the cells and microbes are the actors - they can change their chemical behaviours and conversations depending on which of our emotions are present within the mind and body.
If our brain is in a constant/ chronic state of stress and our stress response (sympathetic tone) is triggered and being constantly fired up throughout the day, our gut will also be in a constant state of stress.
Breathwork can help bring us back to balance
Next time you are feeling really stressed out or anxious, wrapped up in your thoughts, imagine the scenario which is being played out within your internal theatre and see if you can start to move out of your mind, out of your own way and connect to your breath. Let your body breathe, allow it to guide you back to balance and change the narrative from a tragedy to something a little lighter! What if we could move out of our heads and connect back to our inner wisdom by simply breathing?
It’s not realistic to remove all stress and worry from our lives, however different mindfulness and breathwork practices can help to reset both our body and mind. As humans we are always looking to return back to a place of balance (homeostasis) within the layers of the body - physical and emotional, the breath is a really effective tool that we can take control of and help ourselves to get back to that place of balance with different practices.
I participated in a conscious connected breathwork recently with Duncan at Breathing Space and the theme of the breathe was 'Just Breathe', the perfect example of stepping our of your innate wisdom's way and allowing it to do whatever it needs to. I loved Duncan's encouragement throughout, inviting us to not worry about any specific intention or expectation from the breathwork, just let it unfold with the breath. With that in mind, I started the breathe with quite a quick breath to activate a response from my body, but after a few minutes I felt resistance within my chest and jaw and the breath felt a little glitchy so I decided to listen to my body's signals and slowed things down. I actively stepped back and let me body find its own rhythm, keeping a conscious awareness on my breathing but not letting my mind or ego get involved. My body knew exactly what to do without my mind. I continued to breathe with awareness and it was as if my body shifted into its own gear. I felt light and weightless, yet completely stable and grounded. After the breathwork it was as if my body had found reset, calm, focused and light. No explosions, no tears or laughter, but completely relaxed.
When we are able to find balance and a steady state within the mind and body more efficiently, we can help to keep the gut and its functions in a more consistently balanced state. Remember, our gut communicates to the brain so if the gut is relaxed our brain will also be relaxed. When we become activated in our nervous system, we can feel agitated, fearful, and anticipate things which haven't happened yet - we become anxious! Our gut will feel this.
Learning to adapt and control our breathing patterns we can help to regulate our nervous system and manage our emotions. We can start to hack our nervous system with our breath because our breath can help to regulate our heart rate, our nervous system, blood pressure and our emotional states. Our breath can also mirror our body and emotions, through fear and anxiety we often hold our breath or it can become really short and shallow, up in the chest and shoulders. When we breathe in these ways (as opposed to calm, deep into the belly), this can have a huge impact on our physiological state and also our mental state.
Breathwork doesn't have to be complicated or fancy, some of the simplest breathing practices can be the most powerful. The breath is our own unique tool within us that we can practice and harness to find which practices work best for us. It can be as simple as bringing your awareness to how you are breathing during different times of the day. Noticing your own habitual patterns and how your inner world is responding to your external world with your breath. If we are activated in mind and body we can use calming breathing techniques and simultaneously we can use energising and invigorating breathing techniques when we are feeling sluggish and fatigued to boost us up. Slow, calm breaths equals steady, calm emotions!
We have lost that awareness and connection to our breath and how important it is. I noticed the power of my own breath when dealing with pain. I would notice with my breathing pattern that I completely stopped breathing, my body would tighten up and without me knowing, the way I was breathing during these times of pain was making things worse. I learnt with time to start to encourage long, slow, gentle breaths and breathe into the pain. Knowing that it wasn't going to go anywhere so finding a way to gently accept and sit with the pain. The more I relaxed my breath, the more my body started to relax and the pain felt lighter. I learnt that my mind and breath's response to my body was so incredibly important when managing pain and stress.
Diaphragmatic breathing - Belly Breath
Breathing through the nose and breathing from the belly, using the diaphragm muscle can trigger our parasympathetic tone.
How we are choosing to respond to our surroundings shows up in the way we breathe. If your mind and gut are stressed, the breath will be short, shallow (predominantly in the chest). When we aren’t breathing from the diaphragm we can become trapped in our sympathetic state within the body - breathing from the chest and shoulders, which can often be why we feel so tight in the upper body when we are stressed or anxious. We end up using the secondary muscles of our breathing - within the shoulders and neck to help us breathe and this can exhaust these muscles much faster than the diaphragm which is incredibly powerful and the primary muscle of our breath.
A great way to practice breathing into the belly and engaging with the diaphragm muscle is to lay on the floor, face down and concentrate on the belly expanding with your inhale. As you breathe in let the belly fill up with air, pressing into the floor, on your exhale, let it soften back into it's neutral state. This will help strengthen the diaphragm muscled it also allows you to connect to that feeling of the breath coming 'in and out' of the body rather than 'up and down' which is important for driving the breath down into the diaphragm and away from the shoulders, neck and chest to help you relax.
Bringing the air into the lower lungs softly, our rib cage needs to be flexible, the sides of the body needs to expand - stretching and movement can help to create space and flexibility in the thoracic cavity and allow for lateral expansion of the ribs.
More than just breathing from the belly
The more functional our breath can be - slower, lighter, deeper, fluid, less breaths can help us to absorb more oxygen with less effort and feel more calm.
The inhale breath generates sympathetic response (heart rate goes up) activating the body. So when you exhale or hold your breath you are relaxing your body. If you're exhaling or holding your breath for more time than you are inhaling when breathing, you are going to become more relaxed. Lots of breathwork exercises which are calming, work because they are generating the same response from the body - however they don’t all work for everyone so it's important to practice different techniques and combinations because we all have a very individual breathing rhythm.