In the last decade the conversation about healing IBS has improved greatly. When I was sick, the advice was to eat fiber and avoid acidic and fatty foods.
Currently, the conversation revolves around probiotics, lowering inflammation, and grain-free, low sugar diets.
Some people get better with dietary changes and a few key supplements. But not everyone. So there’s a missing piece in the IBS puzzle.
That missing piece is the nervous system!
The nervous system is a complicated topic not widely discussed in digestive wellness.
It’s because working with the nervous system is not a quick fix. It’s not a convenient solution in pill form. The nervous system perspective looks at IBS not just as a problem of digesting food, but also of digesting emotion, stress, relationships (to yourself, others, your environment) and your thoughts.
The focus of this work is more lifestyle based. It’s is about how we treat ourselves, what we believe and how we operate in the world.
It’s a process of tuning into our body and letting go of what does not serve us. Trapped trauma, stresses, pain, and fears that have been frozen into our bodies because we have not been taught how to release them. We were taught to push through and be strong. But this strategy does not serve us or our digestive health.
A sensitive nervous system needs to be cared for in a different way. A sensitive mind and body is strongly linked and digestive issues can result from the wrong thoughts.
Our sensitive system has a much more intense reaction to stimulation and our environment. Things can easily overwhelm and we shut down.
For highly sensitive types, pushing through is the wrong strategy. The right strategy is letting go of difficult emotions, thoughts and experiences. We need to learn to let things flow through so that our systems don’t get jammed up.
I’ve written that people with IBS all have 3 characteristics in common. A highly sensitive nervous system, an experience of anxiety and a perfectionist tendency.
Our highly sensitive nervous system is easily bothered by our own anxiety and perfectionism. Anxiety and perfectionism don’t go together well if you a healthy and well functioning gut.
My life experience and past health struggles have taught me that I get overloaded quicker than the average person and have a tendency to crash and burn if I push myself too hard.
A sensitive nervous system should come with an owners manual, but it doesn’t. I think there is a tendency to overcompensate for sensitivity. To prove we are strong and capable. We don’t want to be perceived as weak.
While there is strength in us, there must also be attention to what the body is telling us and focus on self care.
Highly sensitive folks make up 15 to 20 percent of the population. The same percentage of the population who is projected to have IBS. Coincidence?
The conversation needs to change, shifting the focus on these 3 characteristics of the IBS personality. To see the direct effects of stress and nervous system dysfunction on a sensitive body. Which can cause mysterious symptoms of headaches, overwhelm, fatigue, anxiety, digestive problems, muscle tightness, pain or stiffness, emotional swings, depression, a weakened immune system and cravings. The type of symptoms that doctors can’t find a cause for.
When the nervous system is not working as it should we use substances to give us energy (coffee, sugar) and calm us down (alcohol, drugs, pharmaceuticals, sleeping pills). Our sleep suffers, we are simultaneously wired and tired and our capacity to handle stress decreases.
It’s time we start looking elsewhere for answers.
This is how nervous system dysregulation can cause IBS…
Our autonomic nervous system regulates involuntary bodily functions like breathing and digestion.
When the system is not working right the body get confused and forgets how to do the right thing at the right time. That’s why constipated bowels won’t move despite nutritional intervention. The involuntary mechanisms of peristalsis is compromised as nervous system noise interferes with the system. Sometimes the nervous system gets frozen.
Flight, fight or freeze
The nervous system has a sympathetic and parasympathetic mode. The sympathetic mode occurs when the systems is in fight or flight. You may have hear the term “fight or flight” to describe a stress response. When your nervous system is in sympathetic mode it’s mobilized to respond to threats or danger.
The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in when the body is relaxed and is called the “rest and digest” mode.
A healthy nervous system moves between parasympathetic and sympathetic states quickly and easily. The problem occurs when the nervous system freezes in sympathetic mode. You begin to live your life on high alert as if you’re constantly responding to dangers.
In fight or flight, our body’s digestion and recovery systems shut down. We function on adrenaline and cortisol, with a fast pumping heart and shallow breathing.
A prolong period of living like this can lead to digestive issues as adrenals crash and take the gut and immune system with them. When mysterious digestive issues begin it adds a new level of fear and stress to an already challenging life.
The “freeze” nervous system mode keeps us from truly recovering and discharging trapped tensions and emotions from our bodies.
The result of nervous system dysregulation is negative, fearful thinking, such as a hypochondriac mentality or irrational, fear-based behaviors.
Resolving IBS is not just about the gut. It’s about resolving nervous system issues, which can also resolve emotional and psychological issues.
Nervous system regulation gives the body more resiliency to deal with future stress.
My year of healing focused on diet as well as nervous system healing. I took a sabbatical from working, and gave myself permission to stop pushing, achieving and being productive. I put my healing first and let myself be. I slowed down and prioritized rest.
This was extremely calming and stabilizing. I dropped old patterns that did not serve me and reprioritized my life. That is why my healing journey was so successful.
Ever since I’ve been working on not holding myself to perfectionist standards. Forgiving and accepting myself for my flaws and limitations. Embracing my gifts.
I believe we sensitive ones drive ourselves too hard. We can never live up to our own standards, not without compromising our health or happiness. This was a healing realization for me.
How to address this issue?
The key is to recognize it. Stop obsessing and focusing all your energy on finding the right combo of food and supplements. There is more to healing than that.
Study how you deal with and process stress. Is there something you can let go of to make your life easier?
Learn what triggers your stress. Study how you handle it. Is trying to control everything worth the effort and price you pay. These are the winding paths to healing. Recognizing your self defeating patterns.
Notice your fear. The fear of eating, fear of flaring up, fear of never getting better, fear of socializing, fear of symptoms, fear of not getting support, fear of relapsing. What’s your flavor of fear? How does it show up in your life? Don’t try to fix it. Just recognize it.
Working with the nervous system eases fear and the anticipation of fear. And this can reduce the severity of your symptoms.
Rewiring the nervous system
By developing awareness around triggers we can find ways to rewire our response.
Talk therapy is useful but it only focuses on the mind without including the body.
Nervous system work gets us out of the mind and enters the world and language of the body. That means getting in touch with your sensations.
Sensitive people tend to check out of their bodies and live mostly in their heads.
Techniques for calming the nervous systems are body based. This is called somatic therapy. Some examples are:
Emotional freedom technique (EFT)
Eye Movement Desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
Chi gong and tai chi.
Five signs your nervous system is stuck in fight, flight or freeze
You feel a lot of resistance to doing the things you know you should or need to do to take care of yourself.
You have low metabolism which is categorized by low body temperature.
You have lots of fear, anxiety and panic attacks.
You can not feel into subtle sensations in your body when doing body scanning. You are afraid of your body sensations or can’t sit still.
You have massive shame about putting yourself first and have trouble making good decisions for yourself.
You have chronic unexplained illness like IBS, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, autoimmune disease or a poorly functioning immune system.
To be continued….
I know I opened up a huge topic and given lots of food for thought.
I’ll keep writing about this topic and other ways to address, calm and stabilize the nervous system. It’s a big deal that’s often left out of the discussion.
Even if this is confusing to you, I hope you take away that there’s a bigger piece to healing the gut. A world of thoughts, emotion, body awareness and integrating experience. This is a topic that I want to include in the IBS conversation. Especially for those tough cases who have tried everything.
If this resonates for you then I encourage you to explore this topic further. Feel free to e-mail me with any questions.
Angela Privin is proof that IBS is NOT an incurable disease or a disease at all. IBS is a body out of balance. It’s an invitation for change. After solving her own IBS mystery more than a decade ago Angela trained as a health coach to help others.
Angela uses both science and intuition to help people figure out what’s out of balance in their body. She works with lab tests, dietary changes, supplementation and nervous system rebalancing. Get help rebalancing your digestive system and solving your IBS mystery here.