Written by: Sue Van Raes
Photography by: Shaunti LallyiAm
I have a story for you today.
Camilla came into my office complaining of debilitating stomachaches. They had gotten so bad that she was limiting her food choices to a point of total overwhelm and confusion.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she explained the strife this pain and confusion was causing her every day.
There were a few notable patterns, but really nothing conclusive. After all the usual tests, elimination diets and doctor’s visits, nothing worked…
I love helping people heal their digestion. It’s one of my specialties. Digestion is the most integral foundation of our health. I love the science behind the blood tests, and the deep healing and shifts that so often happen when we start eating foods that our unique bodies love.
But all too often there is something missing, something we overlook…
We now know that not only do the building blocks for health and vitality start in the digestive track – the break down, absorption and transportation – but most of our serotonin (the feel-good neurotransmitter) is also produced in the gut. There’s a reason the gut is also known as the ‘second brain.’
When your digestion is happy, you are happy – literally.
Many people come to me to improve and strengthen their digestion.
Here is the thing: it is often about so much more than food.
When we consider the complexity of the human body, mind, and spirit, there are a few extra important things to consider.
We are whole beings, with physical, emotional and soul desires, needs, and essentials. Treating the digestion as if it exists in a little bubble in our bellies is just not enough – we leave out too much of the equation.
Instead, let’s try broadening our experience of digestion to a body-mind-spirit approach.
Digest Your Life:
If you are like most of us, life is pretty intense.
A lot can happen in a day. A lot of connections, a lot of errands, a lot of tasks at the office, a lot of tasks at home, a lot of kid stuff, a lot of homework, and even a lot of conflict (inner and outer.)
It takes an incredible amount of centering and anchoring not to get swept away in all the ups and downs of life, the holidays, and the needs of those around us.
Amidst this swift daily experience, most of us don’t have time (or the desire) to digest everything that has happened. It can feel like too much. If we were to lay a hand on the lid of our jar of daily emotion and experience, it might explode.
Instead, most of us have elaborate mechanisms to keep that lid on tight, no matter how much pressure builds in that jar.
Many of us hold tension, stress, strife, conflict, and old repressed feelings in our gut.
Did you ever get a stomachache at a stressful family dinner, an unpleasant work meeting, or perhaps while waiting to take an exam?
When we eat under these daily stressors, we are expecting our bodies to process our food when our physical digestion is shut down.
Thankfully, the winter months are a perfect time of year to turn within, listen, and create new possibilities. Whether your life is intensely busy, stressful, joyful, sad, or overwhelming, most of us would admit that life keeps rolling at a pretty good pace these days.
This season, explore slowing down, finding moments of stillness, and moving through life with more intention and love.
Processing your life helps you to process your food.
A few facts about body-mind-spirit digestion:
The stress hormone – adrenaline – has an elaborate mechanism for shutting down digestion. If you were being chased by a grizzly bear (one of the original purposes of adrenaline) you would not want your energy focused on your digestion. You would want every last ounce of attention and energy turned towards your survival, speed, and heightened awareness.
The problem is that most of us are not being chased by a grizzly bear. But the day-to-day stress of our culture mimics something hormonally similar. Many of us live in an adrenaline state right here in society.
Especially for those living in urban areas, overstimulation and overwhelm lead us to experience our biochemistry as if there really was a big old grizzly running after us.
Our daily stress shuts down our digestion and creates many issues that cannot be fixed with just food. Stress affects our hunger, absorption, and elimination.
We can’t fix our day-to-day concerns or the fast pace of our society overnight, but we can integrate a few things to help us get on a better track.
What you can do:
Feel your feelings, digest your life, and give yourself some downtime.
I know you are too busy for downtime. We all are. Some days I feel too busy to take a shower, but I just know I’ve gotta make it happen. For me, it’s non-negotiable – both the shower and the downtime.
Talk to a loved one you trust, write in a journal, take a walk in the fall leaves after work. Do what you can to create a little space to digest your day. Find stillness in the chaos of life.
Create a peaceful environment in which to eat.
It may take longer, you may have to stop for a minute, get out of adrenaline mode, and slow down. But believe me, your body will thank you.
When we are in a peaceful state of mind, not only do we enhance our emotional and mental experience, but we also boost our metabolism and assimilation.
Simply by sitting down, chewing your food more thoroughly, and making eating more of a ritual, you can do wonders for your stress and your digestion.
Speak your truth.
What we resist persists. This includes unexpressed emotions, feelings, and communications. What if we had the courage to speak up in all areas of our lives – our work, our family, our relationships? Imagine the personal empowerment and freedom that we would experience.
Our truth is not about being right; our truth is about being authentic.
When we repress our truth, we hold it somewhere in our bodies. The most common place we hold unspoken truths is our digestive tract. Often when things go unsaid, we get stomachaches, we stuff our feelings with food, or our digestion shuts down all together. None of these are ideal for a life filled with vitality and joy.
The breath is the quickest way to calm down our bodies and minds. When we breathe mindfully through our nose, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system – the calming side of our nervous system. Studies have shown that when we slow down our breathing, we literally slow our brain waves and our bodies and minds enter a more relaxed state.
With just some slow nasal breathing we can get ourselves out of fight or flight mode (remember the grizzly bear) and back into an optimal state for inner peace and good digestion.
Try this when you catch yourself in a stressful fight or flight moment, at or before mealtime, or at any time of day: Slowly inhale through the nose, slowly exhale through the nose. Imagine the stressors in your life dissipating with your exhale.
Okay, let’s get back to Camilla, my client who came to me in tears over her digestive issues.
Camilla’s Success story:
After quite a lot of personal investigation, food allergy testing, and experimenting, Camilla realized that yes, a few foods were bothering her system. She was able to eliminate them from her diet for the most part. That helped a little.
What was the most impactful for her was when she started learning to calm her body and mind down during stressful work days, when she was able to speak her truth to her family, friends and co-workers, and when she reclaimed power over her own life.
She practiced slow and mindful eating (including lots of breathing.) She practiced clearing out old repressed feelings and stagnant emotion through journaling, meditation and self-care, and she started putting herself first in her life.
This took some practice and some time, but each time she felt successful, her stomach pain would lessen and she started to get her life back.
Today, Camilla is free of stomachaches – as long as she doesn’t slip back into her old patterns. If this happens, her body lets her known instantly, and she is now informed enough to amend the situation right away. Yes, a holistic life-approach cured Camilla’s chronic stomachaches.