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How Journaling Can Heal a Hurting Gut

Secret-keeping Affects Your Health

Keeping painful secrets, stuffing embarrassing memories, or hiding certain worries or fears, even from ourselves, are what many of us do. Science shows us that when we do this, we are putting our physical and mental health at risk. People suffering from disorders like IBS often experience patterns of emotional avoidance that can make it difficult to release painful secrets even when one is ready to let go. Expressing what we carry hidden in our hearts and minds can also release what we carry in our guts - and journaling can help in that effort. Several thousand years of human history show that we long ago recognized the healing benefit of sharing our pain with others, whether through intimate conversations with a spouse, a close friend, or even with a relative stranger. The act of disclosing what hurts is a direct path to healing. The good news is that there are many channels we can use to do that disclosing.

Tears are words that need to be written.

- Paulo Coelho

The Biochemistry of Writing

Keeping a journal in which you express what you feel about people, events, and circumstances in your life is a powerful and portable method for discharging the emotional distress associated with those circumstances. Expressing yourself in this way changes your physiology. When you appreciate that every thought and every emotion has a specific chemical signature, you can recognize the chemical link between your mind and your body, including your guts. So, when you release an emotionally painful memory or worrisome concern, you are actually changing your biochemistry! And, since no organ system in the body is more closely linked to your gut’s “second brain,” the benefits of learning to “let go” are often felt first in the gut. Moreover, because of the connections between your gut and your immune and nervous systems (your gut-brain-mind axis), what changes in the gut rapidly impacts these other core body systems in ways that increase digestive wellness and improve overall health levels.

Tips To Get Started

Drawing on important research work begun more than 30 years ago, the following journal practice has shown positive and lasting benefits for sufferers of a variety of physical health challenges.

1. For 10-15 minutes a day each day for one week, write down the thoughts and feelings that you have about an event from your past (or that are still present) that troubled (or troubles) you and touches you deeply.

2. If appropriate, the event should be something you haven’t spoken to others about in great detail.

3. In your writing, write about what happened, what you felt about it then, and how you feel about it today.

4. Don’t censor what you write. This practice isn’t about getting the details right; it is about getting the lingering toxic effects out!

As simple as this sounds, the surprising truth is that the results can be powerful, especially when you combine this practice with other gut-healthy practices. And, if you do find yourself already feeling better, then by all means, keep the practice going! Happy and healing writing...
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IBS and Expressing Emotions

Emotions and Our Body

Everybody has emotions. Without them, life would lose its color and flavor. But how we choose to express (or not express) those emotions can have drastic, physical results on and in the body.

But why do we have feelings. What role do they play in our lives? Read through the phrases that I list below. Allow yourself to wonder what came first: the words of these phrases or the body state that the words describe.

Said another way, are the words our best attempt at describing emotions that originate in the body, or does the body attempt to feel what the words are saying? The answer has dramatic consequences for managing IBS.

• I just had to tell you. I couldn't hold it in any more!

• I need to get this off my chest. I am tired of carrying it around.

• The memory turns my stomach every time I think of it.

• I was so scared I went weak in the knees.

• My heart skipped a beat when I heard the news.

Emotional phrases in all spoken languages routinely utilize “the language of the body” in an attempt to describe the experience of the emotion being felt. This universal way of expressing ourselves exists because emotions are intimately connected to the body.

Emotions arise from the body and reflect specific patterns of activity within its various parts. The brain interprets those patterns as a specific emotion - anger, fear, sadness, love, security, disgust, alarm, etc. - but unless the body is involved, the brain has nothing to interpret.

The Second Brain and the Emotional Gut

Of all the body’s organ systems, the one most closely linked to emotional experiences is the gut. Our digestive tract has its own nervous system that is so chock full of nerves it is called the Second Brain (the enteric brain).

The nerves linking the second brain of the gut with the central brain in your head are part of a massive communication highway that process bodily sensations that are the building blocks of our felt emotions.

So, when an external situation makes you feel distressed, worried, angry, sad, suffering in pain, or experiencing some other negative emotional state, your gut is feeling it too! Conversely, IBS symptoms expressed in the gut give rise to negative emotional states through this same complex communication network that lives in our bodies.

Why Expressing Ourselves Matters So Much

Understanding the evolutionary ties that link our body and our emotions is one thing. Knowing how to use those connections to better manage IBS is something else entirely.

The first step is appreciating that emotions developed to help us quickly determine how to act. Something scary grabs attention over something comfortable. And, action to escape danger takes priority over action to seek security. But, to fulfill this guiding purpose, emotions need to be felt and their energy expressed.

Emotions and gut responses work together to prioritize what has immediate survival value and what can be deferred until later, what safety and security have been re-established.

But, the importance of emotions for gut health doesn’t mean running around all the time telling everyone how you are feeling. It does, however, mean that YOU need to know how you are feeling, and YOU need to take appropriate actions in response to those feelings.

Sometimes that action involves talking with someone in your life, whether that’s a spouse, a friend, a boss, or a therapist. Sometimes that action involves pursuing solitude and self-reflection. And sometimes that action requires something else.

But, to bottle up the feelings by denying them or running away from them is to defeat their purpose with health-damaging consequences, including exacerbation of IBS symptoms.

Getting Started

From ancient sages to recent scientific researchers, the results are clear. Learning to express what you are feeling by channeling it into effective action is an essential way to help you regulate your gut and to manage your gut symptoms more effectively.

Mark Nepo, a poet and author makes this clear when he says,

Here are some action steps to help you incorporate expressing your emotions and telling your story as part of your IBS healing path

• Begin a journal

For 10 minutes once a day, take pen to paper and write about what you are thinking, feeling, and dreaming about.

Alternatively, you could talk to yourself by creating a voice memo in your cell phone. Remember: This is not the time or place to censor. No one else has to read it. The more you simply express what is on your mind and in your heart, the more effective the exercise becomes when practiced consistently.

• Set up periodic “playdates” with a spouse or friend

These are special times when you can simply share what is on your mind  - your hopes, your fears, your longings - with this special someone. This practice can increase the strength of the social bond with that individual, which is a fantastic foundation for building more resilient intimacy with that person.

• Record your dreams

Sometimes, when we are not offloading what is on our minds during the day, those concerns get expressed through our dreams at night.

By recording what you recall of them, you begin to recognize the themes that recur so you more fully appreciate what these deeper yearnings are trying to express. Then, through careful attention, you can develop actions plans so that these dreams can finally find a path to greater fulfillment and satisfaction.

Until next time...

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Breaking the Bad Sleep – Bad IBS Cycle

Breaking the Bad Sleep - Bad IBS Cycle

Anxiety, Sleep, and IBS

The majority of the clients I see for IBS also struggle with poor sleep. There is good evidence that links better sleep patterns with better control of IBS, and this isn’t all that surprising when we recognize the central role that sleep plays in regulating and coordinating all of our body’s natural rhythms.

Poor sleep can be both a cause and an effect of IBS. In other words, poor sleep can cause IBS, and IBS can disrupt sleep.

In addition to the “gut-sleep connection,” the “gut-brain connection” is another important area of exploration. Our expanding knowledge of this pathway uncovers the need to understand how the brain is generating anxiety, and how that anxiety leads to poor sleep and poor gut functioning.

What is an Axious Gut?

The latest research reveals that when certain bacteria gain an upper hand in the gut, the brain develops an anxious outlook.

The body goes into hyper-arousal mode. Everything, including other people, appear more threatening. Digestive health goes off the rails, with diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and pain increasing. Social relationships suffer, too, when we start to favor avoidance over connection.

But, we’ve also learned that the influence moves in the other direction such that anxiety is also capable of causing bacterial imbalances in the gut. Anxiety alters our microbiome in ways that make it harder for the body’s systems, including the gut, to remain well-regulated. So, reducing anxiety, regardless of the source, is an important component of IBS self-management.

How Can Sleep Help?

Sleep patterns sit right at the intersection of brain and gut rhythms. When IBS is active, sleep disturbances increase. When anxiety levels are higher, being able to fall and stay asleep is a major challenge.

But, because everything in the body is connected to a multi-directional communication network, focusing on getting good sleep not only reduces anxiety, it also helps to re-regulate gut functioning to reduce IBS symptoms. So, what can you begin doing right away?

Creating Conditions for Good Sleep

Here are tried and true methods for restoring sleep to reduce anxiety and increase IBS control.


Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

This involves synchronizing your body with the natural rhythms of sunrise and moonrise. Slow down in the evening. Turn down lights and lower sounds as evening falls. Disconnect from electronic devices.

Approach getting good sleep as essential as getting good nutrition. (I offer much more on sleep and IBS control in our Free Mini-Course and, of course, in our full IBS Relief Now program).


Pre-sleep Routine

Develop a pre-sleep mental and physical quieting routine. That may involve meditation, prayer, a warm bath, a yogic shavasana relaxation practice, self-hypnosis or guided imagery, a slow and leisurely walk, or sipping a cup of chamomile tea.


Try Natural Supplements

Research has shown that intermittent use of natural supplements to be helpful in obtaining good sleep for certain individuals. This should be undertaken after consulting with a qualified health professional who knows you and your specific health status.

But, melatonin, magnesium, zinc, glycine, L-theanine, passion flower, and valerian root have all shown variable degrees of benefit when used appropriately.


Get Out and Get Moving

Increasing activity levels during the day has been proven to have a major benefit in improving sleep at night. This doesn’t have to be vigorous exercise. Walking is the most universally accessible and widely beneficial movement activity in which you can engage.


Self Reflective Journaling

Finally, consider developing a journaling practice taking 10-15 minutes to jot down, without self-censorship, what’s on your mind.

It is a good time to gain control over runaway worries. It is a time to develop the practice of writing down three things for which you are grateful. It is a time to identify fear or worries or matters about which you are angry and learn to let them go through imagery or breathing practices or other proven approaches.

Regardless of the paths and practices you choose, bringing together good sleep, improved IBS control, and a more optimistic and positive outlook is a well-established way of regaining control of both your gut and your life. Sweet dreams!

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What Can Your IBS Symptoms Reveal About Your IBS?

What Can Your IBS Symptoms Reveal About Your IBS?

What Captures Your Attention?

We’ve all been to parties, happily engaged in a conversation, totally oblivious to all the conversations simultaneously occurring around us. Then, suddenly, our attention shifts. Something irresistibly grabs our us. We disengage from our current conversation and intently but casually (so as not to offend the person with whom we are speaking) tune into what someone else is saying about something in which we are emotionally invested.  

What is going on here? This can only happen because our brain is actively monitoring many things at once. But, we are only actively aware of one of two of them at a time. Studies suggest that up to 90% of what is happening in or around us is being actively tracked by our subconscious internal and external sensors, while our conscious mind remains totally unaware.

Who Knows What?

Our selective attention abilities represent an important resource when it comes to managing IBS. Many IBS sufferers also describe feeling anxious, depressed, fatigued, achy, or report other symptoms.

Many mistakenly believe, or are told by well-meaning but under-informed health professionals, that these symptoms represent something independent of their gut-related concerns. They may even begin seeing different specialists for each separate symptom, rapidly losing perspective on the common root of many of their struggles.

In most cases, it is a false assumption that all these symptoms are independent. In reality, ALL these symptoms tend to be linked together through the multi-lane communication systems that carry important information about internal and external concerns to the brain and aware mind, and back to the body. It is hard to determine what comes first. Which is the chicken and which is the egg? What is the cause and what is the effect?

Tuning in and Taking in

This mystery is the reason why learning to tune in and take in the various sources of information that are flowing in and through us all the time is so important. There are many practices that allow us to become aware of what is being carried by these communication channels.

Sometimes, our gut, perhaps in the form of IBS symptoms, is what is most obvious to us. For others, feelings of sadness, anxiety, or worry appear first. Still others may find changes in behaviors such as sleep, energy, or memory/focusing ability.

The point is that ALL of these may be signs of something that is off in our lives. ALL of these signs are signals inviting us to tune in to what is off within us and take in what is off in different aspects of our lives around us. ALL of them ultimately arise from the same source: a unified, interconnected inner wholeness that is designed to guide us along the road to health and fulfillment in life.

How to Listen

My experience is that clients benefit most quickly from developing practices that involve slowing down, focusing in, removing external distractions, and learning to listen deeply. That can involve a walk in nature, a quiet session of meditation or prayer,  jotting down observations in a self-reflective journal, or immersing yourself in a book of poetry or some other contemplative work.

The point is, your symptoms are actually signs and signals. They are signposts to guide you along your life journey. While managing them is important, learning to listen to what they have to say about you and your life is even more important. As J. Ruth Gendler said, listening “never tells me what to think or feel or do but shows me how to find out what I need to know.”

Are you ready to listen?

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Is IBS Stealing Your Sex Life?

Is IBS Stealing Your Sex Life?

IBS, Secrecy, and Sex

IBS is a condition often experienced in secrecy and shame.  Absences from work or social activities generate manufactured excuses. Sadly, embarrassment and shame about symptoms is often not limited to conversations with friends or co-workers.

IBS can also disrupt relationships with intimate partners. Multiple trips to the bathroom, belly pain, gassiness, bodily mistrust, and feeling “dirty,” are all romance-killers.

In addition, the loss of healthy sexual expression in a relationship leads to intimacy loss and reinforces the social isolation or loneliness so many IBS sufferers experience. Anxiety and depression can thrive in this environment. Simply put, IBS may be killing your sex life along with your relationship satisfaction.

The Scope of the Problem

Research studies show rates of sexual dissatisfaction or dysfunction among IBS sufferers that are at least twice as high as among individuals without IBS (or with mild enough IBS symptoms that medical attention is rarely sought or needed).

The most commonly reported sexual difficulty is loss of desire for sex. However, dyspaneuria (painful intercourse), inorgasmia (inability to reach an orgasm), and impotence (inability to sustain an erection sufficient to engage in intercourse) are quite common as well.

The truth is that the effects of IBS are not confined to the digestive tract. IBS is a whole body condition that impacts your mood, decision making, and all body systems. As a result, IBS affects intimate connection to others through loss of libido or desire, disruption to body image, willingness to be emotionally and physically vulnerable, and even sexual performance suffers if sexual activity is initiated.

Reclaiming Sexual Satisfaction From the Grip of IBS

Restoring intimate connection and sexual satisfaction to your life when you suffer from IBS requires attention to more than just your diet. It is important to remember that the biggest sexual organ in our bodies is the one that sits between our ears, not our legs.

Our thoughts have to be in sync with our bodies and emotions in order for intimacy, including sexual intimacy, to flourish. This requires cultivation of thoughts and feelings of safety, security, and confidence in and with our bodies in order for sexual activity to be pleasurable and enjoyable.

Aligning our thoughts with our bodies is not as hard as you might imagine. That is because we are already, all of us, deeply interconnected. Our gut connects to the rest of the body, including and especially the brain. Brain affects gut. Gut affects brain. And both affect mood, desire, and daily functioning.

Brain affects thoughts, including thoughts about sexual desire, comfort with one’s body, and thoughts about maintaining control of IBS symptoms. In turn, those thoughts, acting through the brain-gut axis, affect the body, turning IBS symptoms up or down like the dial on your home’s thermostat. Your libido and receptivity to sexual connection rises and falls in response.

Action Steps for Improving Sexual Desire and Functioning

So, what helps to calm down IBS activity while ramping up desire and sexual enjoyment? Here are a series of steps you can take to successfully cultivate a healthy sex life.


Treat IBS as a distress call, not as “the enemy”

The symptoms of IBS arise for many reasons. Their presence signals that a multi-level exploration of what is “off” is needed.

Learning to include potential triggers beyond the gut - not just the food you eat or your bacterial balance - is essential. When stressors, disrupted sleep, relationship difficulties, and anxious life concerns are directly addressed, right along with food-related issues, you will have successfully recreated a healthy bodymind environment in which sexual feelings can safely begin to blossom again.

Calm attractive woman feeling relaxed in office home, peaceful mindful businesswoman leaning back on chair with eyes closed, meditating at work, taking deep breath to relax, no stress at workplace


Develop regular self-soothing practices

Worry, anxiety, and IBS flare-ups are tightly intertwined. As one goes up, the others do, too. Self-soothing practices are a simple, portable, and important way to reduce the stress and strain on the interconnected bodymind system that results in IBS symptom activation.

These practices can include a slow walk, meditation, self-hypnosis, massage, listening to calming music, yoga, or a conversation with a trusted friend. The point is that when self-soothing is routinely practiced, you feel calmer in your own skin, quieter and “present” in your mind, and more ready to connect more deeply to others.

A calmer bodymind usually results in the quieting of IBS symptoms while opening the door to greater intimacy of all sorts, including readiness to connect sexually.


Build a Positive Body-image

Body image1 has many dimensions including:
  1. how physically comfortable you are;
  2. how functionally able you are to engage in your daily activities;
  3. how you believe your body appears to you and others;
  4. how reliable and dependable your body is (can you trust it):
  5. how vulnerable your body feels to being thrown off kilter;
  6. how “alive” and vital you feel in your body; and
  7. how your sense of self - your identity - gets tied in with what you experience in your body.
As you can see, IBS can impact all of them. Building a body image not defined in terms of IBS symptoms is important not only for developing IBS symptom control, but for enabling you to tolerate your body being involved in sexual experiences in a satisfying and rewarding way. Psychotherapy may be useful here.


Bubble Bath Benefits

Let’s face it. Cramping, bloating, and poop are not aphrodisiacs. When we feel that way, we don’t want to be with ourselves let alone want to be with others, especially in an intimate setting.

A warm shower or  bath before bed, on the other hand, has unexpected benefits. Not only does it relax the body, quiet the mind, and ease physical distress. It can also help you feel cleaner and more attractive all over. This self-soothing practice can reduce anxiety and worry related to problems “down there” that can otherwise squash any budding amorous feelings.


The Big O

Sometimes, counter-intuitive coping (doing the opposite of what you’d expect) is the best way forward. Reclaiming sexual satisfaction in the presence of IBS is one area where counter-intuitive coping can apply. Sex, and orgasm in particular, can be quite helpful in re-regulating healthy gut functioning.

Paradoxically, the behavior many IBS sufferers want to avoid may hold a key to resolving the problem they want to resolve. IBS involves dysregulated neuromuscular activity in the digestive tract. Diarrhea and constipation are clear signs that the usual muscular rhythms that define healthy gut functioning is off.

All muscles do two things, whether they are skeletal muscles, digestive tract muscles, or genital muscles. They contract and release. They tighten, building and holding tension, and then discharge their stored energy as they let go. Sexual activity is a way of deliberately and pleasurably exercising those bodily muscles systems.

As your body builds toward orgasm, tension builds as muscles throughout the body contract. Orgasm begins with a peaking of that tension, followed by the release of that tension in a series of muscle spasms.

What follows is a state of heightened “vagal tone” in which the bodily systems stimulated by the vagus nerve, including the gut, relax. In addition, oxytocin is released, which stimulates a positive outlook and stronger feelings of connection to your intimate partner, along with a lowering of cortisol, which reduces the body’s stress and inflammatory responses.

So, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, introducing regular orgasms into your weekly “diet” can be as good for your gut as it is for your body, soul, and your intimate connection to others.

1The 7 dimensions of body image are described by L. Hornyak, PhD, in Chapter 2 of, Healing from Within, APA Press, 2000. Washington, D.C.

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Here’s What’s Really Causing Your IBS

Here’s What’s Really Causing Your IBS

(and it’s not what you think)

Chasing Symptoms and Misunderstanding Causes

In today’s world, we expect answers to our questions, and we expect them quickly. When it comes to managing IBS, chasing simple and quick fixes can be as much of the problem as the IBS pattern itself.

Too often, we chase symptoms and settle for narrowly focused ideas of their causes and how to tackle them: “Just eliminate gluten.” “Eat more fiber.” “Practice meditation.” “Go on an elimination diet.” “Go on an anti-inflammation diet.” “Take Nexium.” “Worry less.” “Exercise more.” “Exercise less.” “Just relax.” Continue reading “Here’s What’s Really Causing Your IBS”

No Yoke! Yoga Can Really Help

No Yoke! Yoga Can Really Help

IBS, Digestive Health, Whole-body Health

There is a therapeutic tug-of-war that is going on constantly in our culture. The tension exists between whether we focus on narrow and specific treatments to problems or choose to focus on broader and more universal solutions that may not be designed for our specific problem, but are really helpful anyway. One example is getting a good night’s sleep. Let’s say that you have one of the following conditions: anxiety, migraine, depression, hypertension, arthritis, or IBS. The narrow treatment focus would say each of these problems requires its own unique solution. The broad focus would argue that sleep is a universal therapeutic solution that is helpful with each of these different conditions. Continue reading “No Yoke! Yoga Can Really Help”