Heads or Tails: GI Psychology and IBD

Heads or Tails: GI Psychology and IBD
Most of us have had butterflies in our stomachs, followed our gut instincts, made gut-wrenching decisions, or felt our stomachs drop upon hearing bad news. Why do we feel “sick to our stomach” when we experience psychological turmoil? Neurons (nerve cells) line the gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus to the rectum. These cells make up the enteric nervous system. This “second brain” activates the gut’s muscular movement during digestion and controls secretions of digestive enzymes, mucus, bile, and stomach acid. The brain and the enteric nervous system transmit messages via the vagus nerve. Scientists call this bidirectional communication the gut-brain connection or gut-brain axis. Emotions, as well as inflammation or infection, can impede communication between the brain and gut. When this happens, the scrambled brain signals cause the gastrointestinal system to malfunction. Researchers have studied the gut-brain relationship in autism, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, obesity, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The gut-brain connection and IBD I first learned about the correlation between the brain and the gut when I read Dr. Michael D. Gershon’s "The Second Brain" shortly after I received my Crohn’s diagnosis. Even before I had Crohn’s, a flood of stomach acid would burn the pit of my stomach and coat the back of my throat with sourness whenever I became angry or frustrated. Now, I might also experience diarrhea or a flare depending on the intensity or extent of these emotions. While writing about depression and anxiety last week, I discovered that some psychologists specialize in treating IBD patients. This growing field of gastrointestinal (GI) psychology, also known
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