The Enteric Nervous System: Why is it significant for mental health?

Have you ever heard of the Enteric Nervous System? I hadn’t either until a few years ago. The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) serves as a deeply important part of our overall health, as it impacts the movement and flexion of the Gastrointestinal system running from the esophagus all the way to the rectum.

You may (or may not) be familiar with the two more well-known aspects of our Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic (used for our fight, flight resources) and Parasympathetic (our rest and digest resource). The Enteric Nervous System is also part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), but it has now been recognized as its own branch, since it can function without the other branches of the ANS.

Photo by sankalpmaya/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by sankalpmaya/iStock / Getty Images

A few key things to know about the Enteric Nervous System would be:

  • It has more nerve cells than your entire spinal cord

  • 90% or more of the bodies Serotonin and half of the bodies Dopamine lies in the gut

    • Serotonin plays a key role in regulating mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function

    • Dopamine is correlated with our reward-motivated behavior and impacts body movements as well as emotional responses

  • There are many conditions associated with Enteric Nervous System such as:

    • Irritable Bowel Syndrome

    • Crohn’s and other forms of Colitis

    • Reflux, Acid Reflux, and more…

      • (References from video link below)

This means is that the gut (and more exactly the Enteric Nervous System) really is the bodies second brain.

Why is this significant?

For too long psychology has functioned as if we are floating heads, and it has ignored the constant and significant interplay of the mind and body. Candace Pert PhD, a neuroscientist who discovered how emotions are stored at a neuropeptide level within the body writes:

“Most psychologists treat the mind as disembodied, a phenomenon with little or no connection to the physical body. Conversely physicians treat the body with no regard to the mind or the emotions. But the body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other”.

Not only are the mind and body not separate, but research into the Enteric Nervous System shows that the mind is IN the body. Because the neurotransmitter’s Dopamine and Serotonin are responsible for our mood and our bodily functions, and are predominantly located within the belly, this part of the body must be engaged if we are to pursue holistic healing. The ENS does have the ability to function on its own; however, because of its proximity and correlation to the PSNS and SNS it is impacted by the bodies state of stress vs. rest. This means that taking care of our gut involves what we eat, but it also involves the stress that we are surrounded by.

  • Ways to assist the functioning of your ENS:

    • Eat whole, unprocessed foods

    • Learn if you have any food allergies or intolerance and avoid such foods

    • Find ways to build up your digestive enzymes through probiotics

    • Allow yourself to have moments of relaxation:

      • Take a walk in nature and find a peaceful place to sit and just be

      • Take a bath with some essential oils and calming music

      • Participate in a yoga or mindfulness class

    • Talk to a somatically informed mental health counselor if you have felt a state of stress, anxiety, or depression

    • Get exercise in order to assist your bodies boosts of feel-good hormones

Gut issues and sensitivities, just like mood concerns, should not be ignored. The good news there is hope if you have struggled with issues such as constipation, diarrhea, IBS, or other gastrointestinal issues. The body never lies, and if you have struggled with any of these the chance is your body is communicating something to you. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope you continue to take the next few moments to listen to your gut. Listen to the rumblings or the stillness. Listen to the movement or congestion. What may your gut be telling you about your mental and physical state of wellbeing? All the best on your journey to healing!

((I am not a medical doctor and the above is based on personal research and opinion. It is not intended for medical advice. You should always consult your doctor when it comes to physical health.))


The Psoas and Chronic Stress/ Trauma

Muscle of Survival

Our Psoas Muscle is known as the “fight-flight” muscle. As you can see in the picture below- the Psoas connects our lumbar spine to our inner thighs by running through our hip joint. The connection between our back and our legs enables us to run and kick. These are the two primary functions that we need in “fight-flight” mode (hence the name!)

When our nervous system senses that we are in danger it alerts our Psoas to fire up. This enables us to be ready to run away from a lion that is chasing us, or to fight off another predator that may be more of our match. The neural connection between our brain and our muscles is a two way street. Just as the brain tells the Psoas to fire up; when the Psoas is in flexion it is sending neural messages to the brain saying “we are in danger and are going to need some support!” When the brain gets this message from our tense muscles our nervous fires out cortisol and adrenalin needed to preserve our life.

Obviously our Psoas is pretty significant when it comes to survival. (it is also a primary muscle involved in our stability and balance) .

The Stressed Psoas

The issue when we are dealing with chronic stress or trauma is that our Psoas is often in a constant state of flexion (activation).

When we have experienced chronic stress or trauma our nervous system is hyper-vigilant. Our brain and our muscles are in a constant state of ready, or even activation, in order to help us survive. Our nervous system does not have a rational way of thinking. It does not know how to differentiate the stress of traffic, cityscapes, or uncomfortable e-mails from a bear that is about to eat us. It only knows how to say “let’s get out of here!!” or “it’s oooookay to chill out….” Both of which occurs at an unconscious level in a fraction of a second.

Trauma research shows us that our physiology is impacted just as much as (if not more than) our psychology through stress and adverse experiences.

How do you know if you have a tight Psoas?

  • Do you sit more hours in a day then you spend moving around?

  • Have you ever experienced stressful events in life (be them extreme events such as the loss of a loved one or a car accident or seemingly less significant like the loss of a friendship or a fight with a spouse?)

  • Do you often have lower back pain?

  • Do you often find yourself feeling anxious, agitated, or frustrated?

If you have answered yes to any of the questions above there is a potential that you have a tight Psoas. This muscle can be impacted by any of these events. It can also impact our mood and emotional wellbeing due to the neural firings that occur when our Psoas is tight.

So what does it matter?

So why am I talking about the Psoas and how it is impacted by trauma?

Well… our Psoas muscle can serve as a litmus test for the rest of our body. When our Psoas is in a state of relaxation and rest- typically so is the rest of our body. And when our Psoas is tight and flexed- so is the rest of our body! This can produce an excess of cortisol and adrenal in our system which can lead to a myriad of stress-related health disorders including adrenal fatigue.

Our Psoas muscle is also correlated with our Diaphragm, which one of our main muscles responsible for breathing (see diagram below). As you can see the Diaphragm and the Psoas connect along the same vertebrae in the lower spine- so when the Psoas is tight we are unable to fully extend our Diaphragm. This means we aren’t able to take a full breath! When we are taking short, shallow breaths as opposed to long, slow breaths our body is in a constant state of Sympathetic Arousal (fight-flight). We cannot have both our Sympathetic and Parasympathetic (rest-digest) systems firing at the same time, and when our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is offline than we are unable to properly digest and absorb our food nutrients, our immune system is not going to be functioning at an optimal level, and we will have impaired ability to produce fresh blood cells…among many other general health functions that occur through our PNS.

A tight Psoas muscle can mean that our overall health and wellbeing is impaired.

Photo by magicmine/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by magicmine/iStock / Getty Images

What to do about it?

This good news is that we don’t have to be in a chronic state of fight-flight mode! The key is learning to listen to and respond to what our body is telling us. If your Psoas is tight (or if you have lower back pain as a potential symptom of a tight Psoas) here are some things you can do:

  • Stretch! Few things are as good on the body as stretching. Stretching should NEVER be about forcing your body into contortions. It is about getting into postures that feel slightly uncomfortable due to muscle tension and teaching your body to surrender and relax INTO the stretch.

  • Talk to a mental health counselor. Remember that the mind and the body is a two way street? Perhaps your Psoas is tight because of unconscious stresses in your life. These stressors may be scary or risky to face on your own. Talking to a professional who can help you listen to the language of your body and find out if there are circumstances or relationships you need to adjust in order for your body to be at rest is an invaluable investment!

  • Shake: Bear with me on this one- I know it may sound crazy. But one of the most amazing things we can do for our body (and one thing we almost never do) is to shake. Literally. Lay on your back and shake your head, arms, legs, and hips (paying special attention to your psoas). This can release extra energy and tension held in your viscera and nervous system so that your body can achieve a new state of relaxation.

  • Rest! After stretching and/or shaking allow yourself to lay on your back with arms by your side (palms up) and legs down with feet hanging open. If that is uncomfortable for your lower back you can bend your knees and put your feet on the floor with your knees together. Close your eyes and simply pay attention to your breath. Don’t have your phone or other distracting devices with you. Maybe play some calming instrumental music, and just be. See if you can slow down and increase your breath by focusing on your belly and chest raising with your inhale. This is giving your body the experience of resting and can help shift you into your Parasympathetic Nervous System.

Thanks for reading!