Have you ever had butterflies in your stomach? How about a “gut feeling” about something? Those sensations are more than just your mind playing tricks on you. They’re part of a larger internal network, driven by an area of your brain called the insular cortex.
“The insular cortex has two main roles: the function and mapping of your organs, such as your stomach, and the control of your limbic system, which is in charge of emotional responses like anger, fear, empathy, and self-consciousness,” says Dr. Bob Griesse, founder at HealthSource of Fairlawn in Akron, Ohio.
In neurology, there’s a phrase that if neurons wire together, they fire together, so when you stimulate one neuron with enough force, by default, you’ll also stimulate whatever is close to it. That’s how a strong emotional feeling can trigger a physical sensation like a pit in your stomach or a lump in your throat.
This is a normal physiological process, but just as it can help you decide whether or not to walk down a dark alley, it can also have negative effects when we’re under high levels of chronic stress.
“I have a patient who was recently diagnosed with Crohn’s after a period of intense stress at home and school,” says Dr. Griesse. “The emerging research isn’t fully understood yet, but science does know without a shadow of a doubt that stress causes chronic illness and exacerbates underlying conditions.”
Part of the reason science can’t pin down the direct impact of stress is because this process isn’t always predictable. The body interprets stress the same way but the outward symptoms and reactions can be very different. For example, in the case of Crohn’s, stress can cause overfiring of nerves (diarrhea) or underfiring of nerves (constipation). Over time, long-term abrasion to the surface levels of the intestine due to this diarrhea or constipation damages the nerves that stimulate the digestive system.
To visualize what’s going on, think of sandpaper rubbing against your skin repeatedly. Eventually, the sandpaper is going to break the skin and cause more damage. The same thing happens in your gut. Nerves live in the deeper layer of the digestive tract, but as a disease like Crohn’s worsens, nerves get more and more damaged, leading to a downward spiral and intensifying flares.
The first way to counteract this nerve abrasion is by removing the invasive substance. Maybe it’s a food intolerance, such as gluten, or it’s being caused by dysbiosis in the microbiome. Without removing the offender, the intestinal wall can’t begin to heal.
Second, Dr. Griesse says that visceral manipulation is critical in helping nerves to regenerate. Without this step, the patient can still be experiencing symptoms because the nerves aren’t firing, even though the offender is no longer present.
“Previously, we thought that once nerves were damaged, they were dead,” says Dr. Griesse. “Now, we understand that they do regenerate, but they are very slow to do so. By using techniques like abdominal massage and instrument-assisted soft tissue manipulation (IASTM), we can stimulate nerves that activate the vagus nerve, the body calms down, and the body’s organs start to recover.”
The more stimulation nerves get, the more likely they are to heal. Human growth rates for nerves reach one millimeter per day in small nerves and up to five millimeters in larger nerves. “Assuming they’ve eliminated the things that are damaging the wall, and then heal the wall and stimulate the nerves, it should only take a couple of months for things to be pretty much back to normal,” says Dr. Griesse.
If you’re dealing with a digestive issue, there are some practical tips for getting better faster:
- Do an elimination diet to discover what foods may be triggering your reactions.
- Get a stool sample analysis to check for any microbiome imbalance, pathogens, or viruses.
- Add nutrients, botanicals, and herbs, such as slippery elm, marshmallow root, aloe, l-glutamine, and licorice to heal and seal the intestinal lining.
- Reduce your stress. The body responds negatively to chronic stress and restoration can’t take place until you put yourself into a more parasympathetic state. Try meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or nature walks until you find something that works for you.
- Activate the vagus nerve to strengthen the gut-brain connection. Singing and humming loudly, gagging yourself, breathing deeply, and aggressively gargling water are all good ways to stimulate vagus nerve activity. You’ll know you’re doing it right when your eyes water.