If you suffer from digestive issues, you’ve probably tried a lot of stuff to heal your gut.
Gut health is a hot (and relevant) topic these days. While the physical symptoms are unpleasant enough on their own, evidence continues to link digestive distress with cognitive issues like brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
You might be able to “gut out” a brief case of indigestion. But ongoing intestinal issues could indicate more insidious and systemic health issues.
If you suffer from regular bouts of digestive upset, abdominal pain, cramps gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation, it’s worth taking a look at your gut health.
Unfortunately, not only are these conditions are profoundly unpleasant, their prevalence is also on the rise. So how do you know if you need to heal your gut?
Read on to learn more…
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How Do I Know if My Gut Is Healthy?
You might think your gut is doing just fine, thank you very much.
I mean, sure, you get heartburn every morning after breakfast and you’re unbuttoning your jeans in the evening before reclining heavily on the sofa to accommodate your post-dinner swollen gut that looks like you swallowed a football.
But you’re fiiiiine.
Let me just point out that these things are not normal. Chronic constipation isn’t normal. Regular bouts of diarrhea aren’t either. You have probably figured those things out for yourself by now because they’re pretty uncomfortable.
But even if you don’t suffer from overt discomfort like the above, there are lots (LOTS!) of other symptoms of impaired gut health, many of which aren’t localized in your abdominal region — so you might not initially think to check for gastrointestinal issues as a potential cause.
Symptoms of digestive health issues can be physical, psychological, emotional, or a combination of all three. They can include any of the following:
- joint pain
- sore muscles
- muscle tension
- sleep issues
- food sensitivities
- autoimmune disorders
- abdominal pain
- skin rashes or itchiness
- brain fog
- inability to focus
- memory loss
- depression and lethargy
As you can see, the symptoms are widespread and not exactly linear. They affect your body, sure, but also your brain.
While addressing potential gastrointestinal dysfunction is crucial in the management of many diseases — particularly those with an autoimmune and/or inflammatory component — it’s also essential for anyone who wants to optimize physical and cognitive performance.
You can’t show up as your best self if you’re fighting through curtains of brain fog and chronic pain, after all.
How Common Are Gut Health Problems?
Honestly, with respect to the question of whether or not your gut is healthy, in today’s modern world the answer is “probably not.”
Not only are gut health diseases on the rise, it’s nearly impossible to avoid foods and environmental substances that disrupt your intestinal microflora.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control, over 3 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), including Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis.
SIBO, or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, is another common digestive condition caused by an imbalance in gut flora.. The symptoms are unpleasant, ranging from belly aches and bloating to more serious issues like vitamin deficiency resulting from impaired nutrient absorption.
Experts don’t know exactly how many cases of SIBO occur each year in part because it’s frequently misdiagnosed.
But these are the most extreme levels of gut dysbiosis. Even if you don’t have a severe condition like those above, many of the above-listed symptoms result from a more prevalent and sneakier condition called “leaky gut syndrome.”
Leaky gut means that the epithelial lining of your intestine — the most rapidly regenerating tissue in your body — has become overly permeable, allowing large molecules of food and environmental irritants to enter the bloodstream.
Symptoms are varied and range from digestive upset to skin problems and even brain fog or memory loss. Leaky gut has been correlated with autoimmune diseases such as diabetes and Lupus.
So, the answer is: gut health issues are pretty freaking common. But why does it happen?
What Causes Gut Health To Go Bad?
Why are we all suffering from gut health issues? I mean, digestion isn’t even something that requires conscious control. You eat food, your body breaks it down and uses it for fuel…easy-peasy.
Well, yes. In an ideal world, your gut would be pretty low maintenance. Its sophisticated design is finely tuned to absorb nutrients and fuel your daily life. But we don’t live in an ideal world.
There are toxins in our food supply. Yes, toxins. I’m going to invoke that controversial word, the one that makes MDs roll their eyes at hippie-foodies chugging green smoothies and espousing lemon juice detox diets.
I never understood why this word was so polarizing. I have seen statements to the effect of “if a health professional even so much as breathes the word ‘toxin’ you have destroyed your credibility and entered the world of crystal-waving quackery.”
Be that as it may, it is an irrefutable fact that our food supply is contaminated by our own environmental waste. Plastics, for example, literally surround our bodies inside and out. Micro-particles have been found in the digestive systems of birds, fish, whales, and now humans, too.
One researcher who pulled a fish out of the Great Lakes was shocked to see tiny filaments of plastic weaving themselves into the fish’s digestive system.
It turns out that even our clothes are polluting the environment. Fleece jackets (yes, even the fancy ones from Patagonia) shed on average 1,174 milligrams of petroleum-based fuzziness per wash. About 40% of these fibers wind up in rivers, lakes, and oceans where marine life ends up eating them.
So, while detox diets are still up for debate, there’s no doubt that you — and everyone around you — are eating petrochemicals on a regular basis. Do these contaminants pass harmlessly through your body, having no impact on your health?
More research is needed to determine exactly how they’re affecting us, but there’s ample evidence that plastic trash isn’t exactly doing us any favors. Crabs fed petrochemical based plastic, for example, showed altered behavior.
Fish fed plastic that had been soaked for three months in seawater to allow it speed degradation had evidence of liver damage, and oysters exposed to styrofoam particles showed diminished reproductive function.
More directly related to gut health, exposure to Bisphenol-A (BPA) commonly found in plastic water bottles and the lining of canned foods disrupts the balance of normal gut flora. And if you’re smugly choosing BPA-free options thinking yourself safe, those may be just as harmful.
And all of this is just the effects of plastic. I use these as a primary example because you can’t avoid them — even if you eat organically grown food prayed over by Buddhist monks and harvested on a new moon.
Petrochemicals are in our air, water, and our food.
But there are other substances that disrupt gut health, including chemical pesticides, heavy metals, antibiotics, and pharmaceutical drugs, not to mention just plain diet.
Food quality is a contributing factor to gut dysbiosis (microbial imbalance) and inflammatory bowel disease. Food allergies or intolerances, diets high in processed foods, a lack of pre- and probiotics, and enzyme deficiency can all contribute to impaired digestive function and its associated symptoms.
So if you think your gut is fine, the truth is, it’s probably not.
And all those annoying things you associate with “just getting older” like joint pain, stiff muscles, and forgetfulness?
Yeah. Those can be the result of a gut that’s struggling to do its job under less than ideal conditions.
But What Do Tight Muscles Have to Do with Gut Health?
If diet is the issue here, it seems like diet is where we should focus our attention. If chemicals in the food supply are disrupting our gut flora, then choosing organic produce and supplementing with probiotics seem appropriate.
And it’s true. As they say in the world of fitness, you can’t out-train a bad diet.
Basically, you can’t eat Whoppers and milkshakes for breakfast every day and hope to get six pack abs, no matter how hard you work in the gym.
The same also goes for gut health.
If your diet consists of prepackaged, processed foods, or you’re eating things that irritate your gut lining due to allergy or intolerance, or if you’re simply ingesting large quantities of endocrine-disrupting petrochemicals, your gut health will suffer.
End of story.
But if you’re intentionally nourishing your gut lining and microbiome yet still experiencing digestive issues like bloating, constipation, stomach pain (that you’ve ruled out medical causes for, of course), or even acid reflux, there may be another frequently overlooked element at play: stress.
Stress And Gut Health
While psychological stress has been proven not to be a cause of IBS, it’s still a factor in functional gastrointestinal disorders, especially those where no obvious physical cause is present.
Even in cases of IBS or SIBO, addressing lifestyle and stress are integral to a healthy treatment protocol.
You might think of stress as a “top down” phenomenon where you have a thought that makes you feel stressed or anxious. Your brain then sends corresponding signals through your spinal cord to your body, including your digestive system, causing a flood of stress hormones and tension.
But actually, it often works in reverse.
Your brain and body are constantly checking in with each other to assess the present situation. Which means your body is also sending signals to your brain.
Muscle tension signals your brain that all is not well. Those clenched shoulders and rock-hard hip flexors mean that you’re not safe.
Even if all is well, your brain will interpret your tight muscles as a sign that danger is near. It will then start to prepare for survival the same way that it would if a cougar were stalking you in the forest.
Your brain and body will switch into the fight-flight-freeze branch of your autonomic nervous system — the sympathetic branch.
This affects gut health because in life-threatening situations, your body — sensibly — pauses digestive function and mobilizes blood away from your internal organs in preparation to defend itself.
When your sympathetic nervous system is highly active — as it is in a survival situation — digestive secretions and gut motility (the wave-like motion that moves food through your intestines) are inhibited.
Which, you know, kind of slows down your digestion.
That whole food thing kind of gets pushed to the back burner. After all, it’s not super important to digest your lunch if you might not live through the end of the day.
Tension and Your Gut Brain
While muscle tension definitely keeps your body stuck in sympathetic activation and thus impairs digestion, it also has a more direct and mechanical effect on gut health.
Your viscera—or more colloquially, your guts—all have something called motility, which is an inherent movement or wave used to push food through the digestive tract.
Tension and rigidity in your deep core muscles impairs motility and thus food can stagnate, causing constipation, cramps, gas, bloating, and other symptoms of poor digestion.
Motility is a function of the enteric nervous system, a component of your autonomic nervous system which regulates biological functions that are beneath your voluntary control (breathing, heart rate, etc.). The enteric nervous system is local to the digestive tract and has at least as many neurons as your spinal cord (some experts say that the enteric system has more).
Because of this, the enteric nervous system is often referred to as the “gut brain,” a source of localized intelligence in your viscera. Some people consider the gut brain to be the source of intuition, giving rise to “gut feelings,” as they’re so often called.
And in fact, one function of the enteric nervous system is sensory, which means that it’s reading information via sensory receptors located in the mucosa and muscle of your intestinal wall — like skin, but on the inside of your intestines.
While these sensory receptors respond to various stimuli — including that from food that you’ve ingested — most relevant to the discussion of muscle tension and gut health is their ability to respond to stretch and tension.
Deep muscles in your core that have become locked and rigid can negatively influence a long chain of nerves running along the front of your spine related not only to safety but also to digestive function.
The Psoas-Gut Connection
If you haven’t heard of your psoas muscle (pronounced so-az), then you’re likely lucky enough to never have had a massage therapist dig their fingers deep into your abdomen to release it.
Your psoas is a deep core muscle that spans from roughly the middle of your spine down behind your internal organs and finally attaches on the upper inside of your thigh bone.
It is the only muscle linking your spine to your leg, and it has a unique relationship with your gut brain. Because of its location along the front of the spine, your psoas has a direct influence on a set of nerves that also reside in the same area called the sympathetic trunk.
These little bundles of nerves called sympathetic ganglia are part of that autonomic nervous system we talked about earlier. Essentially, their role is to regulate biological functions that are below conscious control — like digestion.
Your psoas is a particularly interesting muscle not only because of its direct, physical connection to the communication system that feeds your gut brain, but because it also seems to be a sort of sensory antenna.
This puzzle is starting to take shape now, right?
Digestive function relies on communication between your enteric and central nervous systems. This communication happens via the sympathetic nerve ganglia — the very same ganglia that co-habitate with your psoas.
If there is rigidity and constriction in and around your viscera such as happens from a chronically tense psoas muscle, the enteric sensory receptors will communicate back to the brain that there’s a problem.
The brain will then signal to the body to slow down digestive function and conserve energy to fend off an impending threat. Thus gut motility (the process that moves food along your intestinal tract) will be reduced.
And digestion will slowwwww down. Which you might experience over time as gas, bloating, constipation or other unpleasant physical symptoms.
Lose The Tension, Heal Your Gut?
On the flip side, reducing muscle tension — especially in the delicate psoas which is intrinsically linked to sensations of safety and connection — can improve gut motility and digestion.
Your psoas, due to its location behind your viscera, acts as a sort of hammock into which your internal organs settle.
Or, should settle. If your psoas is supple as a health psoas should be.
A healthy psoas will gently massage your organs as you walk and move. However, a taught, rigid psoas becomes a stiff guide-wire supporting your spine — not doing its job to facilitate gut motility.
What causes a tight psoas? Or any tight muscle, for that matter?
There are many causes of muscle tension. One prevalent factor is mental and emotional stress. When you’re under pressure, the same biological response to threat — your sympathetic nervous system — is activated, resulting in physical tension.
Stress isn’t a problem unless it’s relentless and offers no breaks, or if your nervous system gets frozen in this place as sometimes happens in cases of childhood trauma or with a deep emotional shock.
In fact, an emotional wound can be just as painful as a physical one — literally. There’s evidence that emotional trauma such as social rejection activates the pain centers in your brain in the same way as if you had suffered a physical wound.
Commonly, once an emotionally charged event passes, if a person hasn’t had the opportunity to discharge the stored physical stress, the body will become “frozen” in time, responding perpetually as if the stress were still present — whether you’re consciously aware of this or not.
Symptoms of this “frozen” state are varied but often include chronic muscular tension, muscle “guarding” and some level of hyper-vigilance — tight, darting eyes, shallow breathing, sensitivity to noise or other environmental stimulus, anxiety, constant scanning of surroundings, etc.
While treatments such as psychotherapy can help you to make sense of events that happened in your life, cognitive strategies frequently don’t quite reach the deep biological effects of chronic stress and stored emotions in the body.
These effects can dissipate, however, by working from the body level up to release the stored physical tension related to old memories, embodied emotions and even negative or limiting self-beliefs.
This approach brings your body back into balance (and takes the strain off your digestive system so your organs can function again).
Mindful Movement for Nervous System Health
While it’s imperative to address digestive diseases such as IBS and SIBO with appropriate medical treatments which may include drugs, herbs, probiotics, and diet modifications, the importance of regulating your nervous system for digestive health cannot be overlooked.
Many people in our stressful, fast paced modern world are walking around with big balls of knotted muscles in their necks, shoulders and guts. Tension in the abdomen and hip area is common because these regions of your body are related directly to survival.
In a life or death situation, the human biological response is to curl toward a fetal position to guard the vulnerable viscera and reproductive organs. While you may not be huddled under a desk with your arms wrapped around your knees, every time you experience even micro-stress, there is a subtle contraction in the hip and core, a movement toward guarding.
Over time, this tendency toward curling shows up as a rigid psoas, lower back pain, inflexible hips — and digestive distress (to name a few symptoms).
Fortunately, as I mentioned, there are some excellent and readily available tools to help you dissolve this stored nervous system activation — namely, movement.
The practices I teach in my signature method are designed to thaw the tension in your tissue, like hitting a reset button on your body — and brain.
It’s not yoga. It’s not exercise. It’s an entirely new take on life.
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