Digestive distress is something I’ve coped with in some shape or form for a large part of my life, though I wasn’t always conscious of it.
I remember beginning to get the odd zit here or there in the 6th grade, and then by grade 7 dealing with full on acne that came and went over the years as I experimented with different topical treatments, some of which worked great for a year or so, and others that, frankly, never did a thing but aggravate my skin. It wasn’t until I graduated from university that I made the link between acne and my body’s inability to properly digest dairy. In removing dairy, my skin drastically improved, which was my gateway into becoming more interested in digestion.
…well, that was one gateway.
Another massive inspiration to look into my digestion was when, around the same time I cut dairy out, I came off the birth control pill. My oh freaking my. That was a tough time. After stopping with the pill roughly 3 years into taking it, I began to experience intense bloating. Like, the kind where your stomach is extremely distended and rock hard. It was hard to eat anything in that state, much less do up my pants. This led me to the doc who prescribed me proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs), which, in retrospect, I don’t think was the best call. PPIs are stomach acid blockers, and you’re only supposed to be on them for a few weeks, max—and I was on them for at least 2 months. Why? They weren’t actually solving what was going on for me, so, whenever I came off them, all the gas and bloating came back, which made me want to extend my time taking them. I felt dependent. Eventually though, I knew I had to pull the trigger and take myself off them. When I finally did, that was the real start to my journeying down the path of ‘what’s going on with my gut’—a journey we hear about far too often these days.
At this point in my life, I had no spiritual life. And I wouldn’t cultivate one for at least another year and a half. So I was very much trying to solve my issues from a physical lens only. This absolutely got me somewhere. I learned about FODMAPs, our omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, blood sugar, pesticides, and molds, and how all these things, including, too, the time of day in which we eat, can play a role in gut health.
But this isn’t the whole picture.
What I learned the hard way is that we can nail it on the physical front, but if we aren’t paying attention to our emotional and spiritual bodies, we can only be so healthy.
Because I wasn’t aware of this, I did what so many people do: I doubled down on attempting to perfect my physical world, which meant, in my case, trying to perfect my diet. Long story short: this didn’t work and only made me more anxious, because then I became hyper-focused on certain foods and scared, as a result, of what they may do to my stomach (bloat-wise), my skin (acne-wise), and even my throat and chest (tightness-wise, as I was getting histamine reactions on top of everything else!). And to be honest, I am still working to heal all of this. It takes time.
If you relate, please hold so much compassion for yourself. I know it can be so easy to judge your body and your mind, to get down, to feel like nothing is working, to feel like you’ll never get better. But you will. Provided you’re willing to do something different.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” -Einstein
Feeling backed into a corner is what ultimately led me to exploring spirituality and my emotional world. What I learned changed my life. And though, as I said, I’m still healing, still learning about this massive topic of holistic health, I want to share now with you guys some of what I have learned, about digestion in particular, from the perspective of mental and spiritual health.
Spiritual and Psychological Causes of Digestive Distress
So, my loves, if you are eating clean and still coping with digestive distress (read: bloating, diarrhea, acid reflux, constipation, etc.), again, your healing is unlikely to be found in a stricter diet. Of course, it may be that temporarily you will benefit from something that is stricter while you work on your mental/spiritual health, but only temporarily—and not if you have or have had a history of an eating disorder/disordered eating.
The point is, healing is going to be found in going deeper and getting to the root of what’s going on.
So, let’s cut to the chase.
Sexual and Physical Abuse
Dr. Gabor Maté writes in his book When The Body Says No that many patients with IBS and other functional disorders have been sexually or physically abused, which explains, at least in part, why their nervous system is more fragile, and why they’re, as a result, more sensitive to stressful stimuli.
In his book, to illustrate this, Maté shares a study where participants’ colons were artificially distended. Those with functional disorders like IBS exhibited hypersensitivity to the distension, experiencing much greater pain than control groups. What’s more, brain scans showed activation of their prefrontal cortex while they were distended, which wasn’t observed with control groups. The prefrontal cortex, Maté explains, is where the brain stores emotional memories, and what helps us interpret present stimuli in light of past experiences. If this part of the brain is being activated, it means that something of emotional significance is occurring. And, the thing is, activating it isn’t a conscious decision, it’s the result of nerve pathways being triggered. In other words, you can’t fake your response.
Someone who I am personally a big fan of who embodies this point is Gabby Bernstein. In her book Happy Days, as well as in many talks and interviews, Gabby shares how she had lifelong gut issues that were the result of her being sexually abused as a kid, and then repressing the memory of the abuse for decades. “My inflamed gut was directly affected by my inflamed thoughts, unresolved emotions, and all the reactive ways I responded to my triggers.” When she remembered the abuse, she writes in her book, her gut issues flared up, in spite of a clean diet. To heal, she had to follow a strict food diet, and a strict “zero stress tolerance diet.” She explains, “When you’re stressed, your gut motility slows down, causing a myriad of GI issues.”
Of course, there are other reasons for digestive issues, outside of physical/sexual abuse, including…
Inability to Digest Emotions
For thousands of years, Ayurveda has talked about this using the term ‘agni.’ Agni, meaning digestive strength, not only breaks down food at mealtimes, but it is also responsible for how you metabolize daily experiences and information. The strength of your agni is directly related to your ability to understand and comprehend knowledge and process emotions and sensory experience.
I love how Ayurvedic teacher Dr. Vasant Lad speaks about processing emotions:
“Emotions are like mangos. We have to learn to ripen them and then juice them. When emotions are juiced, they are deeply nourishing. Even sweet.”
So, the same force that enables you to extract nourishment from food, allows you to extract sustenance from life. But when this force is weakened because of a specific unaddressed emotional event, or because we lead stressful everyday lives, both our capacity to digest food and feelings can be negatively impacted.
To process our emotions and restore balance to the body and mind, well, keep reading.
Spiritual and Psychological Solutions for Digestive Distress
Whether the root of the digestive issues you’re experiencing are abuse, such as that which Dr. Gabor Maté and Gabby Bernstein discuss, or whether they are stemming from other unaddressed difficulties in your life, as Ayurveda and Louise Hay in You Can Heal Your Life speak to, the avenues for healing I’ll share below have the capacity to serve you.
The reason why is that, ultimately, what these all do is encourage the emotions that have gotten stuck inside of you to begin to move, process, and eventually eliminate, so that your mind and body can come back to homeostasis, versus the state of fear they were living in before, thus strengthening and equipping them more fully with the ability to easily digest your food.
“The word emotion itself comes from the Latin word emovere—to be moved. Emotions move us. They are a call to action and attention. Emotions are energy in motion. Our feelings only become a problem when we short circuit their natural tendency to move by ‘not feeling’ or by overreacting.” -Katie Silcox, The Chopra Centre
While repressed emotions lead to pain and suffering, emotions that are tapped into and deeply felt help us dissolve blocks in our energy, as well as unwanted patterns or beliefs.
There are so many ways to tap into and be with our emotions, but what all these modalities share is how observing our emotions allows them to rise, fall, and then eventually terminate. We’ve all experienced this at some point or another when we allowed ourselves to cry. There’s the powerful emotion that rises in the chest, the throat, and eventually bubbles up into spilling tears, and then, as the tears dry up, we experience the emotion descending, eliminating, and as a result we feel lighter.
Watch a sad movie, or listen to sad music. Both of these provoke our emotions and allow them to ultimately be released through tears. In the past, I really leaned on the power of music to get me through breakups. This method works astoundingly well to help you feel what you’re feeling, and then, again, release it.
Writing allows us to slow our thoughts and release them onto the page. If you’re not ready or willing or able to share how you’re feeling with another person, this is a beautiful step to processing your emotions that is so powerful.
If you're not sure where to start, consider writing about the feeling that comes up when digestive distress is present. Where exactly is it in your body? If you could give this feeling a color/word/shape/emotion, what would those be? If there was a visual associated with this feeling, what may that be? Just explore freely without trying to get it "right." There is no right or wrong here anyway, only curiosity.
Whether it’s in a voice note to yourself, in session with a therapist or coach, or in conversation with a loved one, speaking allows us to process our thoughts and feelings, and, if another is involved, get valuable third party insight that may help our healing. Be conscious of who you open up to. Ensuring you feel safe to share openly and honestly is important.
Get a deep tissue or Ayurvedic massage
This will help move the emotions that can get stuck in the tissues.
Move your body
Whether it’s by walking, running, dancing around in your living room or in a Zumba class, get your body moving. Yin yoga can be particularly powerful as poses are held for longer periods of time, which naturally promotes the exploration of emotions, allowing them to come to a natural completion.
There are so many reasons meditation is so healing. It slows down your body and mind, reducing stress, and it brings your awareness inwards so you may feel what you’re feeling, pour love onto your feelings, and allow emotions to rise, digest, and fall away.
What I find the most touching about meditation is how it allows us to connect with a higher power of our own understanding. For me, that’s Spirit, but it could be God or Universe or angels or ancestors for you, or all of the above. When I’m connected, I feel empowered, inspired, but mostly held, so deeply safe.
A meditation that acts as a potent soother for the stomach involves lying on the ground with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Let your feet widen so that your knees can fall together, relaxing the muscles in the belly. Place your hands on your belly and breathe deeply into your stomach. Notice what arises without judgment, without trying to change anything. Spend at least 5 minutes here in this pose.
Yoga Nidra is similar to meditation in how it looks and feels. It includes lying down in Savasana and bringing your attention to your body parts, focusing on your breath, and visualizing, with the goal being to get into the hypnagogic state. In this state, you’re able to commune with your subconscious and bring healing to the parts of you that are in need. I have a free recording you can try here.
Reiki is a therapeutic technique that helps your body restore its normal flow of energy. When energy flows as it should throughout your body, your physical, emotional, and mental state can function optimally. As a result, digestion flows more normally and…
- pain caused by digestive disorders is alleviated
- stress levels are lowered
- mood is lightened and calmed
- inflammation is reduced, and
- the body’s own self-healing mechanisms are supported
Persistent digestive issues tend to have emotional components, which is why, when we’re only addressing the physical, they can be chronic. To bring deep, lasting healing, we need to connect with the emotional world. This can be done through a number of different ways. Choose the method above that speaks to you. Trust it. Take your time with it. And, if needed/desired, seek the support of a therapist or coach to help you on this journey. I truly believe in your healing xx
Happy Days by Gabby Bernstein
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
When the Body Says No by Dr. Gabor Maté
How to Improve Your Mood by Improving Your Digestion
The Link Between Your Emotions and Your Digestion