I have always battled with my digestion. Since I was a child I experienced cramping, was easily nauseous, and generally had an unhappy ‘tummy’. I was also a worrier and often anxious and the more unhappy and down I was the worse my digestive issues would be. I hardly ever ate anything when I was stressed or unhappy. Eventually I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in my early twenties.
Does this sound familiar in any way? Have you managed to find a solution to these difficulties? I know for the most part they are treated in isolation i.e the digestive system is treated through various medicines or even colonoscopies are performed to figure out the problem. But guess what….the answer does not just lie in your digestive system. It is related to the interface between the three brains – the head brain, heart brain and gut (enteric) brain.
Yes, I said three brains. Many people have heard about the body and mind connection and even the gut-brain connection but it’s only relatively recently that research has focused on the three brains. Meanwhile, in various other healing traditions/cultures this knowledge has existed for a very long time (especially Eastern forms of medicine).
These three brains all consist of the same complex neural circuitry (neurons, neurotransmitters, support cells, glial cells, proteins etc) but each brain has a distinctive role and each brain is very important in mental and emotional wellbeing.
The head brain is basically a computer – it analyses information and runs programs, responding in a manner that will ensure survival. This brain runs the autonomic nervous system. It is also filters information through belief systems and applies rigid rules and conditioning that will ensure ‘survival’ e.g. “If I don’t open myself to a relationship I will stay safe.” The head brain cannot create original thought – information is received through the heart and then filtered through the head brain and then the gut brain.
The head brain has been very overemphasized since the industrial revolution and the evolution of science and intellect. This brain has been praised and lorded as the reason we are so sophisticated and advanced. However, with that advancement has come great stress and resulting physical and emotional disturbances due to the poor head brain being completely overworked and expected to do what it actually is not designed to do.
The heart brain is the seat of original thought and our innate knowledge and awareness. The heart brain secretes neurotransmitters like dopamine and even norepinephrine, and most importantly it secrets oxytocin (which is associated with love and bonding).
The heart is the home of our intuition and is focused on relationships – feelings in relation to others, our environment, ourselves, our work etc. This is a place of being with and feeling it out. It provides a deeper knowledge and understanding compared to the head brain in relation to what is most beneficial for the self. The heart is about “knowing by heart” and “following your heart”. Unfortunately, the heart is shut down in many people because we want to stop ourselves from being hurt. We instead go with the head and follow the best rules for “survival”. But is this state of protection and survival really living?
The enteric or gut brain runs from the back of the throat to the anus and is very extensive and powerful. It is linked to and connects organs and endocrines in the body. Every kind of neurotransmitter and hormone found in the head brain is found in the gut brain and, in fact, there is far more dopamine and serotonin (strongly associated with mood) excreted in the gut brain then the head brain. It is inflammation in the gut and gut dysbiosis (imbalance in the microbiome of the gut) that causes depression and anxiety. When the enteric brain is neglected or upset that is when we feel most anxious and most overwhelmed.
When it comes down to making a final decision or gaining a final understanding it is the enteric brain that is responsible for this. Think of ‘trusting your gut’ or following your ‘gut instinct’. Unfortunately, again due to a need to ‘protect’ ourselves we make decisions utilizing the analysis and conditioning of the head brains. All too often this means we don’t necessarily make the decisions that are most beneficial.
Unfortunately, with the overemphasis on the head brain it becomes overloaded and the other two brains become neglected. The processing of information is carried out poorly and we battle to trust our decisions, follow our intuition and relate fully.
It is as if we ask the waiter to bake us the most perfectly moist and delicious chocolate cake when the chef is the right person to ask. The poor waiter wants to be seen favourably so as not to lose his job (and receive a good tip) and so he tries anyway and the result is a poor to mediocre excuse for a cake. In addition, this causes a huge amount of stress as the waiter is now trying to bake and deliver food to the tables at the same time.
For me, even the knowledge that my head brain cannot make true decisions helped me to quiet that brain. When stressed or overwhelmed, I am learning to encourage a relaxation response and focus on the heart and the gut brain and everything settles – emotionally and physically. In my next blog post I will be discussing the head brain-gut relationship further and also share information on how to create more balance between the three brains.
For now simply start to bring awareness to and acknowledgement of your other two brains. This will already go a long way to ensuring you receive the most delicious chocolate cake you have ever tasted as you truly live your life with joy versus just surviving.
Sounds good right?!