Is a faulty gut brain connection responsible for your Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms? If you’re suffering with IBS and feeling frustrated and confused about your IBS symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and stomach pain, then it’s time you got to know your brain-gut connection. Because once you understand more about the role of the mind gut in Irritable Bowel Syndrome, you’ll discover a whole new way to overcoming your IBS gut symptoms.
So let’s dive in!
What is your Gut Brain Connection?
So what is your brain gut connection? Well your brain gut connection, also known as the brain gut axis describes the ongoing two-way communication happening between your brain and your digestive system.
You see your brain and your gut are inextricably linked, with your gut sharing many nerve pathways and chemical transmitters with your brain. In fact scientists actually call your digestive system the brain in your gut, or your second brain because of the estimated 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract.
This second brain, also called the enteric nervous system is in constant communication with the brain in your head (part of your central nervous system) with the two sending messages back and forth.
Now most of us instinctively know that our brain and gut are connected and the most simple example of this connection in action is to think back to when you last felt nervous, did you have butterflies in your stomach? Or do certain situations make you feel nauseous?
This happens because your gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Emotions such as anger, anxiety, sadness, and joy — all of these feelings can trigger symptoms and sensations in the gut.
And your brains effect on your stomach and intestines doesn’t stop there. In fact the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food even gets there.
And this connection goes both ways too, a troubled stomach can send signals back up to the brain.
What happens when the gut brain connection stops working as it should?
Now when this two-way communication works perfectly, there’s no problem. But when your brain and your gut stop talking to each other as they should, IBS symptoms develop.
This is why gastrointestinal disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, along with Reflux Hyper sensitvity and Functional Dyspepsia are called Disorders of the Gut-Brain Interaction.
They are called disorders of gut-brain interaction because it is believed the most critical abnormality is impaired communication between the gut and the brain via the nervous system in both directions (so from gut to brain and from the brain to gut).
When this happens, and faulty communication arises it can cause two main issues which are typical of IBS:
- Firstly, Visceral Hypersensitivity. This means that your bowel can become overly sensitive to normal sensations such as gas or fullness and misinterprets this stimuli inside of your bowel as pain. This happens because the nerves inside of your gut have become hyper alert, they have become hypersensitive -and they signal pain and discomfort when they might not need to. Your brain can also amplify these signals, leading to increased perceived levels of pain.
- The second issue is something called Altered Bowel Motility, and this refers to the speed at which food moves down through your bowel, and when this becomes irregular it can result in constipation, diarrhoea, or a mixture of the two.
So I hope at this point that your IBS symptoms are starting to feel less like a mystery and that there is actually a reason for them. And to help demystify IBS even further, we’re going on a quick journey inside of your digestive system. And don’t worry I will keep this simple.
The Process of Digestion and What happens when your gut and brain miscommunicate
When you eat, the food that is digested travels through your mouth, continues down your oesophagus (the tube connecting your throat to your stomach), into your stomach, then travels through your small intestines, then through your colon (which includes your large intestines) and then out of your rectum (also known as your bottom).
Now the part of the bowel that is largely affected by IBS is your large intestine.
Your large intestine as I mentioned is part of something called your colon and measures an incredible 5 ft in length. Now In digestion, its main job is to change the liquid waste products which travel into it from your small intestine into stools, or poo.
To do this it needs to do two things. Firstly it needs to absorb some of the water – which is does through its lining, and the second thing it needs to do is push the partially digested food along that 5ft path to your rectum which in a normal functioning gut triggers the reflex to go to the toilet.
Now the muscles found in the walls of your large intestines are what pushes this partially digested food along by alternating waves of contractions followed by relaxation.
These strong waves of movement propel the soon to be stool long distances about 2 or 3 times per day. This process is called peristalsis which you might remember from school biology lessons!
Now this next part is really important, so listen up, as I’m about to explain why you are suffering with IBS and why your partner or best friend isn’t. In someone who does not have IBS, the muscular movements in their large intestine and colon are consistent and coordinated. Digestion happens smoothly, without issue 99.9% of the time. Their brain and gut are communicating as they should.
However In YOUR large intestine and colon, this unfortunately is NOT happening. In YOUR gut, these muscular movements are either happening too slowly or they are happening far too quickly. This is what is called altered bowel motility.
If this movement is happening too fast, you’ll likely experience painful cramping and because the partially digested food passes way through too quickly, not enough water is going to be absorbed and diarrhoea will be the result. This increase in speed may also trigger a very strong reflex or urgent need to go to the toilet.
On the other side, if the movements slow down too much, this is when constipation occurs, where too much water is absorbed and a hard, lumpy stool is the result, which can also be difficult and painful to pass.
So the major take away I want you to walk away with from this video is that your IBS symptoms of diarrhoea and constipation are being caused by irregular muscle contractions, which all comes back to fault messages being sent between your brain and gut.
These inconsistent and uncoordinated muscle contractions are ALSO the reasons why you may experience painful spasms – these are the result of rapid muscle contractions in your colon.
This type of movement can also result in waste and air becoming trapped which can be extremely uncomfortable and painful and can cause excessive bloating and/or strange noises in your tummy.
How does knowing about a faulty gut brain connection help you?
Well this new understanding of the connection between you brain and your gut and the involvement of your nervous system in IBS, helps to explain the effectiveness of mind-gut therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medical hypnotherapy such as gut directed hypnotherapy.
Because what we know is that our two brains talk to each other – the brain in your gut talks to the brain in your head. And so therapies that help one can help the other, and psychological approaches such as CBT and hypnosis can help to improve and strengthen the miscommunication which is triggering your IBS symptoms.