Your Brain May Be a Powerful Tool for Improving Stomach Problems

How psychological-based treatments can ease digestive symptoms
Your Brain May Be a Powerful Tool for Improving Stomach Problems

Did you know that your gut is linked to your emotions?

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The brain is our central nervous system, but the gut comprises a relatively newly discovered kind of nervous system — our enteric nervous system – that is also responsible for our mood. In fact, our gut releases more serotonin than our brain. Perhaps that’s why, when we talk about our emotions, we use phrases like “gut wrenching” and “gut feeling.” It’s also why our stomach may be upset when we’re depressed, and why we might be in a miserable mood when our gut is unhappy.

“Pain has both physical and psychological components, and both must be addressed,” says Judith Scheman, PhD, Director of the Behavioral Medicine Program in Cleveland Clinic’s Digestive Disease & Surgery Institute.

“Factors that modify the amount of pain we end up perceiving are undeniably affected by our thoughts, plus the context in which we feel pain (think about being tackled in a football game versus in a dangerous situation), our expectation (will the pain ever end?) and anticipation, which can actually lead to our perceiving pain before it even happens.”

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An understanding of this so-called “gut-brain-body connection” is opening up new ways to think about diseases. And it’s led some medical professionals, like Dr. Scheman, to believe that certain people with chronic digestive pain could benefit by adding behavioral medicine interventions to their treatment.

“Almost anyone with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can benefit from behavioral medicine education, and the earlier people are exposed to this education, the better medical treatment will work for them,” she says.

Tools that could help

  • Deep relaxation therapy. This approach includes progressive muscle realization, visualization, restful music and deep breathing to help people release endorphins and reduce reactivity to stress. Studies have demonstrated that the practice of deep relaxation techniques may boost the immune system.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of treatment is designed to help people learn coping skills to better manage anxiety and stress. Numerous studies have demonstrated an improvement in overall IBS symptoms with use of CBT.
  • Biofeedback. With this technique, patients use a device that measures a physiological marker — say, temperature or heart rate variability — to identify their physiological response to stress and learn to modify it.

In addition to helping ease digestive symptoms, these treatment can also boost mood and quality of life. But they’re not for everyone; Dr. Scheman says people with significant psychological symptoms unrelated to their digestive issue, or an active eating disorder, are not good candidates for behavior medicine education as a single treatment. It might, however, be a helpful addition to their other psychological or psychiatric care.

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