Imagination: Medicine for You & Your Gut

Imagination: Medicine for You & Your Gut

written by: Dr. David Alter
by: Dr. David Alter
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Feedback Loops are Essential to Life

All life depends upon feedback loops to survive and thrive, to adjust and adapt to ever-changing worlds. Our health depends upon the dynamic flow of information within those loops. Perceiving and responding are the two fundamental elements of all feedback loops: We perceive what is "there" and then we generate an appropriate response to it. Here is one example. Coral that live along Australia's 2,000-mile-long Great Barrier Reef monitor the angle of the sun, the temperature of the ocean, the speed and direction of the ocean's currents, and the phase of the moon to decide the exact day and time at which all corals release their eggs. When the sensory part of their feedback loop detects that just the right moment is at hand, the movement part of their loop releases each coral's eggs. In unison, all the eggs bob to the ocean's surface by the billions, forming a milky, miles-long cloud that carries the coral's colorful genetically programs dreams of a new generation to far-flung locations along the reef's length where the eggs settle, germinate and potentially begin the reef-building process anew in a different location.

Our Loopy Inner World

We have innumerable feedback loops within us. Every one of our 50 trillion cells has some; so do larger organ systems like our electrically-charged nervous system. Our nervous system is designed as an intricate network of feedback loops that fine tune our internal and external responses by generating stimulating, calming, exciting and inhibiting patterns of electrical firing within and between one another and on the body's other organ systems with which they connect. The focus of this blog is on the feedback that occurs between our mind, brain, and our digestive system, which is often called our "second brain" because of how full of nerve cells it is.

Using Your Imagination for Healing

One of the first times I became aware of this feedback loop was at a professional workshop where the teacher spoke about making fresh lemonade. She spoke about taking the lemons, sniffing them, feeling the texture of their skin and their cool temperature. She spoke about taking a sharp knife and cutting into each lemon that released squirts of the lemon's juice. Each slice allowed its tart scent to waft into her nose as she prepared to squeeze the lemon slices into the pitcher she'd filled with cold, fresh water and ice cubes. She then spoke about the taste on her tongue of the sweet and tart flavor that filled her mouth and quenched her thirst on that hot summer day.

If you are like me, by now you are salivating, too. You may already be generating powerful-enough sensory memories that you are smelling and tasting lemon juice just as though it were in your mouth. Your stomach may be gurgling in anticipation of the arrival of this classic summer drink. If so, you have just demonstrated the powerful effect of your mind on your body. This response reflects the presence of a feedback loop within you involving your mind's imagination, your brain's neural web, and it's connections to your mouth, nose, tongue, cheek and gut. Your mind just activated your body in multiple ways simply through the built in power of your imagination.

Imagination and Restoring Healthy Gut Rhythms

When it comes to managing the gut-related disorders of the many clients I see, I make consistent use of this imagination-driven feedback loop. For anyone suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), colitis, Crohn's disease, or other bowel disorders, to not utilize mind-based therapeutic approaches in the treatment process isn't just an oversight. It also flies in the face of cutting-edge treatment findings. Mind-based approaches such as clinical hypnosis are considered the gold standard when it comes to treating sufferers of IBS.

Our gut is second only to our brain in how nerve-packed it is. In prior blogs I wrote about some of the ways that our "second brain" is involved in regulating our health (http://bit.ly/BrainsAndBellies). Those blogs emphasized the part of the feedback loop that travels from gut to brain and mind. This blog looks at the other direction of this circuit: mind and brain-to-gut. Imagination is a mind-based ability, which can be deliberate and focused or, in the case of patterns of worry and anxiety, operate no less powerfully, but in the background and out of our conscious awareness.

Optimal digestive functioning operates like a teeter-totter, active when we are physically calm, safe, secure, and quiet, all the better to effectively extract nutrients from our food. The gut operates "off-line" when we are active, exerting ourselves physically or mentally. However, when we feel fear and patterns of generalized worry, they have a direct and negative impact on gut health (http://bit.ly/MindingYourHealth). When we maintain chronically high levels of anxiety, fear and dread and when we clog our mind with anticipatory worries about "what if...this" or "what about...that," we confuse our gut. It does not know whether we are coming or going. That digestive confusion is seen in the myriad symptoms that can arise when our mind-brain-gut feedback loop gets dysregulated. Diarrhea, constipation, pain, bloating, gassiness, embarrassment, humiliation, social avoidance, insomnia, dietary changes, and loss of perceived feelings of self-control in life and body arise. When inflammatory bowel processes are present (e.g., Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn's disease), blood loss, tissue death, anemia and bowel surgery may be needed.

Comfort or Chaos - It May be a Matter of Mind

Research studies on the ability of the mind to positively impact physical functioning are gathering steam. The push to learn how to harness the mind's power to rewire the brain and redirect the various functions of the body is so strong that most drugs fail to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unless and until they show they are more powerful than the mind's ability to heal the body on its own.

Activating the healing power of the mind to treat digestive conditions works best when the unique character and history of each individual suffering with dysregulated digestive functioning is addressed. Gut-directed mind-body therapies focus on re-regulating the digestive tract by restoring the natural, teeter-totter like rhythm of the body as it oscillates between cycles of activity and rest. Many life circumstances can throw off that rhythmic balance. For some of the people I've worked with, the origin of the gut disorder has its roots in childhood trauma. For others, the origin of the symptoms is to be found in the aftereffects of an illness, an accident (like a car accident), or an adult loss (like a divorce, the death of a loved one, or some other relationship disconnection). For still others, food sensitivities (e.g., to gluten, certain sugars, or alcohol) can throw the digestive tract out of whack.

6 Steps to a Calmer, Healthier Gut

While individually-focused interventions are ideal, there are near-universal elements that many of these treatments contain. Those elements include:

1. Producing bodily calm, which invite the mind to quiet down. Meditation, self-hypnosis, a walk out in nature, or yoga are examples.

2. Become attuned to your body's moment-to-moment experience. This involves doing a body scan in which you observe in a sensitive, unhurried, and non-judging way what bodily sensations you feel inside as you allow your attention to move from your feet to your head.

3. Allow your left hand (it is more linked to your emotional regulation system, and therefore to gut functioning) to rest on your belly or lower abdomen. As you feel yourself breathing in and out, begin to picture bodily distress and mental worry flowing out of you with each out-breathe.

4. Allow a color to come to mind that you associate with comfort, safety, and warmth. With each in-breathe, visualize that color as a liquid that begins to coat the inner lining of your digestive tract. That imagined coating protects, soothes, and heals that gut's lumen more and more as you continue to breath in.

5. Practice this rhythmic in and out breathing pattern for a few minutes. Distress and worry flow out with each out-breathe while comfort and soothing calm flow in with each in-breathe that follows.

6. Return to your day with a renewed and strengthened mind-brain-gut connection enabling you to face your daily challenges with enhanced resilience.

As a special gift, I have recorded a user-friendly and effective version of this exercise that can calm your mind, quiet your body, and invite your gut to restore its natural rhythms that regulate healthy digestive functioning. The exercise will be released as part of my March video Newsletter. It will be available free of charge to all individuals who have subscribed to my website . (https://www.drdavidalter.com).

Next month, we will take up the topic of sleep. We have many ideas about sleep that get in the way of being able to feel rested. If you want to learn to feel more rested, have more energy, and stop dreading sunset because of on-going concerns about sleep, stay tuned...