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  • Susan Koursaris, NTP, BCHN®

Grief and Your Gut

You know the feeling of “butterflies” in your stomach? We usually relate that sensation to public speaking, or first dates- you know, things that are nerve-wracking but can also be exciting in a positive way! Oddly enough, I discovered that during my grief experiences, especially those that hit particularly hard, this feeling was here to stay... And NOTHING about it was positive or exciting.

This “feeling” we get in our gut is thanks to a complicated network of neurons that make up the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). It’s been dubbed our “second brain” because it’s amazing capabilities rival only that of the brain. This system is normally regulated by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, but it does have the capability to operate all by itself. These two systems are responsible to put our bodies either into a fight-or-flight, or a rest-and-digest mode, respectively.

When we’re in a parasympathetic state, we are calm, relaxed, heart rate decreases, and our digestive tract gets ready to receive nutrition. It’s a great state to be in! Problem is, when we’re stressed, depressed, sad, negatively impacted by emotional trauma, we can’t fool our gut into this state because our digestive tract will always compensate for our situation. The sympathetic mode (stress response) kicks into overdrive and “shuts down” digestion, so to speak, so that even if we do force some food down, we aren’t going to be digesting anything very well. And this can lead to a cascade of negative effects.

Good digestion is so critical to overall health. There is simply no major system in our bodies that digestion does not impact, somehow. So, when we can’t get back into that critical parasympathetic state, especially on a chronic basis, things can turn south, real quick.

I don’t know about you, but after traumatic loss in my life, I went into numb mode. Existing only. Getting through the day. Eating whatever, whenever I could and that was only IF I felt like eating. Same went for sleeping. Absorbing nutrients from good food and getting proper sleep are two critical activities our bodies need to rest and repair to stay healthy. So… as the dominoes fell, I started getting sick and tired… over and over. And it didn’t seem to be getting better. I felt like crap. All the time.

I was aware of the things that were making and keeping me sick. Fast food, processed snacks, high sugar intake were the usual suspects. But they seemed to be giving me SOME comfort. It was later I realized, they actually weren’t; I was just mistakenly using them as my “pacifier” when I was feeling sad, lonely, or depressed at the loss I had experienced.

So, I thought I’d try something different. Maybe I would sip on some bone broth instead of crush that bag of white cheddar popcorn I was so fond of. I knew I'd be more successful if I 'replaced' instead of 'punish' by omission. I made tiny tweaks along the way, finding better alternatives to my guilty pleasures and made sleep a priority. This took a long time (and I still battle being a night-owl). I simply wasn’t ready to give everything up yet. Yet, after a while, my body did start to crave that nutrient-dense food and it got disgusted by my old stand-bys. This, along with purposeful activities like exercising, deep breathing, and prayer, really helped me get back into that state of calm and finally get that desperately needed rest.

Meditation, prayer, stretching, and taking time to purposely SLOW DOWN are all activities that can really help in calming that second brain of ours to bring the body back into that parasympathetic state we want to be in. The sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state works well short-term and is meant to protect us and give us that extra push to escape a difficult situation. However, remaining in overdrive only leads to burn-out and inflammatory processes that drive chronic conditions and disease.

Grief is hard. There is no rulebook on how to handle it the correct way. You can only try to listen to your body’s messages. Make it easy on yourself. Cut yourself some slack during this time. Prioritize sleep, try to avoid things that bring you more worry (like everything on a screen), read more, journal your thoughts, pray, stretch, go for a walk in God’s nature, and take time to eat healthy, nutrient-dense food in a relaxed manner. Your physical body needs this support, especially during this time of emotional turmoil.

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