There is strong evidence for the gut brain connection as well as for the effectiveness of behavioral therapy in improving gut health concerns.
·October 25th, 2021
Chronic gut health conditions impact many adults. Our modern lifestyle can cause problems for our gut and microbiome. Many people seek our lifestyle consultations and changes to improve their symptoms.
There is strong evidence of the mind-body link between chronic gut illness, lifestyle, and psychological factors, often referred to as the brain-gut-microbiome axis.
Behavioral therapy including cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy as well as stress management or mindfulness focused therapy have also shown to be impactful.
A behavioral therapist can help you manage symptoms and make lifestyle changes.
In the US today, 6 out of 10 adults are living with a chronic illness and 4 out of 10 adults are living with two or more chronic illnesses. Chronic gut health concerns can be some of the most concerning issues impacting people.
While management of the medical conditions are critical, there has been proven evidence of a strong mind-body link between chronic illness and psychological factors. In particular, clinical studies have shown the connection between chronic gut health issues and the brain, often referred to as the gut-brain-microbiome axis, and to the effectiveness of behavioral therapy in helping improve these gut health concerns.
The gut-brain-microbiome axis
Your gut flora or gut microbiome, which consists of 90% bacteria, is a complex system that has evolved in conjunction with humans. This gut bacteria interacts with multiple systems in your body including the nervous, endocrine and immune systems.
In fact, the enteric nervous system (ENS), often called your “second brain”, is located in your GI system and is a network of nerves stretching from your esophagus to your anus. The ENS is involved in the secretion of hormones and the general functioning and perception of the pain in the GI.
When things are balanced, you don’t have a conscious perception of this “second brain” of the gut. However, when there is pain or other negative impacts to the GI system, your second brain will trigger a response. There is a bi-directional communication between the ENS and the central nervous system (CNS).
It has been proven that the brain can impact the composition and function of the gut flora. In turn this gut bacteria can impact the brain. For example, imaging studies of women who drank a four week course of fermented milk showed changes in the emotional and sensation regions of the brain. This axis of the gut, brain and gut bacteria has direct implications for those with chronic gut illness.
Moreover, the issues of chronic gut illness bring their own unique issues and stressors. You may be worried about issues such as:
Attacks of pain, gas or diarrhea in public
Eating out or eating at a new restaurant
Trying to find a bathroom in a new place
Eating with colleagues or friends at a social event
Flare-ups before an important meeting, event or exam
These situations often already result in more anxiety and stress. Moreover, the brain-gut-microbiome axis means that your emotional and mental health can directly influence your chronic gastrointestinal illness. This can then become a negative emotional and physical cycle.
A 2009 study showed that General Anxiety Disorder was five times more common amongst those with IBS versus in those without IBS. Thus, it is not surprising that Behavioral Therapy has been shown to help people change the way they perceive their illness and to increase the positive outcomes of those with chronic gut health & illness.
Behavioral therapy approaches
There is no one size fits all approach to Behavioral Therapy and most who suffer from chronic illness don’t necessarily have mental illness but can still benefit from this type of short-term therapy. Generally most approaches focus on one or both of the following two aspects of emotional health: self-monitoring and changing distressing thoughts.
Some example approaches include:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Through this short-term structured process you’ll work with a trained therapist to diagnose the thinking that is negatively impacting your chronic gut health illness. For example, you might keep a diary and self-monitor your moods and problem behaviors. Then, you will build skills and tools that help change those negative thought patterns. You would then practice these skills through ‘homework’ assignments and review these assignments over time with your therapist. Your therapist might also include other tools focused on relaxation techniques and overall stress management.
Gut Directed Hypnotherapy: This approach was developed in the 1980’s by a gastroenterologist after it was found to improve GI symptoms. Using these relaxation exercises, a gut focused hypnotherapist will guide you through suggestions and imagery to help you calm your digestive tract. Clinical studies have shown an 84% efficacy rate with gut directed hypnotherapy.
Mindfulness Focused Therapy: Mindfulness techniques were developed by Shakyamuni Buddhi over 2,500 years ago. These techniques focus on bringing awareness to your present state of mind through your senses, thoughts and emotions. This process of focusing on present-moment experiences works to calm the mind and release fixation. There is growing evidence that this therapy can restructure the brain and aid in addressing chronic gut health issues. A trained mindfulness-focused therapist can guide you through meditation techniques to improve your emotional well being.
Stress Management Therapy: Through relaxation, breathing techniques and mindfulness techniques, a therapist will help you develop skills to improve your stress management.
Working with a behavioral therapist in addition to your primary care provider or your other comprehensive medical providers can help you create a holistic chronic gut illness management plan, ultimately allowing you to improve your quality of life. See our list of qualified providers to find one to suit your individual needs.