Mothers rub their baby’s tummy to soothe them. We can feel nauseous when we’re anxious or lose control of our bladder or bowels when we’re extremely afraid. We feel like butterflies are fluttering in our stomachs when we’re nervous. Our digestive system, our gut, is closely connected to our emotions, especially emotions associated with a stress response.
People with psychological or neural disorders often suffer from intestinal disorders as well. Healthcare professionals are now looking to address psychological issues such as chronic stress, anxiety, and depression via the gut. A hot area of research is the role played by micro-organisms that live in our gut.
Among the trillions of bacteria, parasites, protozoans, and fungi in our gut, some harm us and some benefit us. In fact, the microbiome in our gut, and the guts of other animals, such as the mice studied in related experiments, is so important that mice that are germ-free from birth lack the ability to recognize other mice, have underdeveloped immune systems, have neurotransmitter receptors in abnormal shapes, and produce important brain neuron fertilizers differently. Although enough research hasn’t been performed, these neurotransmitter receptors and brain neuron fertilizers have human correlates that are related to clinical depression, anxiety, and psychosis in humans.
In mice that do have an intact microbiome in their gut, when researchers disrupted it, the mice displayed behavior that mimics human anxiety and depression. Sometimes scientists tried and were able to give the mice particular strains of bacteria that restored their normal behavior.
Some ways that gut microbes are thought to affect our brains and behavior are by making neurotransmitters that communicate with the gut’s nervous system, the enteric nervous system, as well as molecules that nerve cells need to make neurotransmitters. They also affect the immune cells in the gut. The molecules they put out can stimulate immune cells into action to mount an inflammatory response and a stress response, or can cause inflammation and stress to be reduced. The activities of our gut microbes can even cause us to feel more or less pain.
Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist and the director of the Center for Neurobiology of Stress at the University of California, Los Angeles, gastroenterologist Kirsten Tillisch, and fellow UCLA researchers did an initial study that suggests that eating certain bacteria in food can help your emotional response. They gave healthy women yogurt twice a day for a month and then performed brain scans (MRIs) while the women looked at pictures of people with frightened or angry expressions on their faces. Unlike most people, these women had less of a reaction in the emotion-processing areas in their brains. These brain areas go to work when we are in a state of heightened alert. This “shows that bacteria in our intestines really do affect how we interpret the world,” said Dr. Tillisch. Dr. Mayer cautions that, “We simply don’t know yet if probiotics will help with human anxiety, but our research is moving in that direction.”
Although food and probiotics are getting most of the attention, another technique that can improve your gut health and emotional health is abdominal massage. Different variations of this technique have been found to relieve constipation, which helps improve the microbiome in your gut, because the longer waste sits in your digestive track, the more of a chance harmful microbes have to grow there. Abdominal massage has also been found to relieve stress and have a relaxing effect like other forms of massage.
A particular kind of abdominal massage that focuses on the navel is described in Best Life Media’s book, Belly Button Healing: Unlocking Your Second Brain for a Healthy Life by Ilchi Lee. The navel is an important and particularly powerful acupressure point centrally located in the gut. Pressing it in different directions, the author says, relieves tension, pain, and stress, calms down your brain waves, and improves circulation of blood, lymph, and subtle energy in your body.
“When I do the Belly Button Healing, I feel the direct release, I can feel the major muscle groups in my body releasing, and I can feel the tension going away. . . . This is very effective. It seems to be more effective than some of the other things I’ve tried in terms of releasing muscular tension,” James Westphal, Chief of Psychiatry of the Adult Mental Health Division of the Hawaii Department of Health, said. “As we practice Belly Button Healing, by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, by stimulating the vagus nerve, your chronic stress will stop. It may stop for a couple of minutes and come on again, but that’s why you have to practice. Stress affects people in different ways. It can be muscle tension, it can be all kinds of physical ailments, it can be worry, it can be depression. The parasympathetic system enables us to rest better, so people can sleep better.”
Deborah Coady, an Obstetrician-Gynecologist that specializes in chronic pelvic and vulvar pain and an assistant professor at the NYU Langone Medical Center, also practices Belly Button Healing regularly. She thinks, “With chronic pain, there’s often depression and anxiety, and we know now that the gut and the area that is stimulated by Belly Button Healing has many hormones that are important in our mood, especially huge amounts of serotonin. So people in chronic pain who then get depressed. they could certainly use a boost in serotonin and also dopamine. [The belly button] is such an important access point, like a gate to the abdomen. The tissue there is thinner. There’s not the big rows of rectus muscle and oblique muscles on either side, so I think that giving a massage directly through the belly button is like a much more direct access as opposed to if you were doing massage on the side.”
With methods such as Belly Button Healing and other holistic ways of improving our gut health, we can manage anxiety, stress, and depression better with few to no side effects. We first have to recognize how important our gut is, and then remember to listen to it and give it what it needs. Through our gut, we can stop our emotional descent and grab hold of a lifeline back to health.