Updated: Jun 8, 2021
Bloating. Burning. Aching. Gas. Pain. Constipation. Diarrhea. Constant worry about when and why your stomach hurts.
There are so many types of pain that people feel in their digestive track. Whether you feel the pain deep in your gut, your bowels, upper chest, or everywhere, GI pain is frustrating. I get it. I have been there on way too many occasions to count – and am currently there after a recent flair from an unknown trigger. You want to just MAKE the pain and discomfort go away.
If there is one thing that I have learned on my health journey, it is that the more I try to push the pain and discomfort away, the more I try to make the pain stop, the more the pain stays and often gets worse.
So how can we cope with the pain, particularly when we don’t know what is causing it?
One of the most important things I start with new clients is helping them become in tune with their gut-brain-body connection. In other words, I help them start to recognize that what is going on in our brain affects our body and our gut.
What does this look like?
When we are experiencing digestive pain – anywhere in our GI tract, a simple place to start is with taking three deep breaths.
Three Deep Breaths
Let’s do that right now. Wherever you are reading this, let yourself get comfortable – standing, sitting, or lying down. Close your eyes. And bring your attention to your breath. Focus on the air coming in your nose, filling up your chest, and into your stomach. As much and/or as deep as feels relaxing to you. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to thinking about your breath. Repeat this breathing three times (or more).
Why is this helpful?
It starts with the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is often called the wandering nerve because it starts in the brainstem, wanders through the body touching on numerous organs – including the heart, lungs and the digestive tract (and vagus literally translates to wandering in Latin). It is the longest cranial nerve in the body, is known as the superhighway between the brain and the gut, and the vagus nerve is bi-directional. This is why when we feel anxious, our heart, lungs and digestive track often all react – with a racing heart, faster breathing and digestive pain. Messages go from the brain to the gut and from the gut to the brain.
In other words, when we are emotionally upset, people often feel digestive symptoms as well, and when our guts are ‘off’, it can impact our mental health. There is a strong connection between gut health and mental health.
When we focus on our breathing, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This is important because the PNS promotes rest and digest, and allows sufficient blood flow to the digestive tract. The vagus nerve is heavily involved with activation of the PNS.
An article in Harvard Health Publishing explains the relationship between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the PSN:
The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the "rest and digest" response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.
It can be hard to find a way to regularly put the brakes on. In our go, go, go, busy lives, the SNS can often be working all the time. You may notice this when you try to fall asleep at night, and you lay your head down exhausted, and end up feeling tired but wired. I struggle with this often and have to remind myself of these techniques, particularly when life feels overwhelming.
If you notice this feeling, here are evidence-based strategies* to help calm activation of the SNS and activate the vagus nerve:
And there you have it – a quick strategy to begin to become aware of the gut-brain-body connection. The next time you feel GI pain bring your attention to your breath. Repeat as often as needed. Rest. Relax.
PS - If you are looking for more support in your gut health journey, please reach out to me for one-on-one coaching!
*Although there are different levels of evidence for these techniques, higher quality studies are needed to verify the effects on the body. However, the strategies noted can’t hurt (unless you have any medical conditions that prohibit you from engaging in different breathing techniques or physical activity), are free, and may help!