I wrote earlier about an essential part of our immune systems called mast cells and the period when mine went wild, reacting to pretty much anything I ate or drank as if Attila’s Huns were at the gate and needed to be attacked at all costs – even if they killed me in the process.
Since I figured out that it was hyperactive mast cells that were giving me such grief in 2012 and enlisted my chiropractor and GI doctor to help me calm them down, I’ve continued to have intermittent periods when those cells in my gut immune system have become overactive, resulting in bloating, gas, some diarrhea alternating with constipation, and even occasionally a bit of acid reflux.
Always looking to figure out the underlying cause of a health problem and fix it rather than treat only the symptoms, and knowing that chronically hyperactive mast cells produce allergies and autoimmune diseases – along with any number of other diseases and conditions – and that emotional stress exacerbates mast cell hyperactivity, I came to the realization that I actually had the tools to calm myself and slow down the reactivity in my GI tract.
Here’s how I finally got the message:
Last week I went to see my GI doc just to check if my gut might have developed some new problem that was causing these unpleasant symptoms. He’s a fairly traditional Western doctor and also a very nice, compassionate man. I’d brought my C. difficile article and a stack of other articles on mast cell hyperactivity to my appointment with him in 2012. He thanked me and asked if it would be OK if he read them on his own time. Then he agreed to do a biopsy during my colonoscopy to check for mast cell proliferation. A good thing I’d asked since my colon looked perfect and it was only the biopsy that revealed all the mast cell over activity.
Since 2012, he’s become interested in the whole topic of the gut microbiome and opened our appointment last week by giving me an excellent article published in The New York Times in 2005 called “The Other Brain Also Deals With Many Woes”. I highly recommend it to you as the clearest description I’ve read of how mast cells can cause serious mischief and how stress increases the problem.
This is the part of the article about mast cells and stress:
Another mechanism that lends credence to physiology as the source of intestinal dysfunctions is the system of mast cells in the gut that have an important role in immune response.
“During stress, trauma or ‘fight or flight’ reactions, the barrier between the lumen, the interior of the gut where food is digested, and the rest of the bowel could be broken, and bad stuff could get across,” Dr. Wood said. “So the big brain calls in more immune surveillance at the gut wall by activating mast cells.”
These mast cells release histamines and other inflammatory agents, mobilizing the enteric nervous system to expel the perceived intruders, and causing diarrhea.
Inflammation induced by mast cells may turn out to be crucial in understanding and treating GI disorders. Inflamed tissue becomes tender. A gut under stress, with chronic mast cell production and consequent inflammation, may become tender, as well.
In animals, Dr. Mawe said, inflammation makes the sensory neurons in the gut fire more often, causing a kind of sensory hyperactivity. “I have a theory that some chronic disorders may be caused by something like attention deficit disorder in the gut,” he said.
Dr. Gershon, too, theorizes that physiology is the original culprit in brain-gut dysfunctions. “We have identified molecular defects in the gut of everyone who has irritable bowel syndrome,” he said. “If you were chained by bloody diarrhea to a toilet seat, you, too, might be depressed.”
Still, psychology clearly plays a role. Recent studies suggest that stress, especially early in life, can cause chronic GI diseases, at least in animals. “If you put a rat on top of a little platform surrounded by water, which is very stressful for a rat, it develops the equivalent of diarrhea,” Dr. Mayer said.
Another experiment showed that when young rats were separated from their mothers, the layer of cells that line the gut, the same barrier that is strengthened by mast cells during stress, weakened and became more permeable, allowing bacteria from the intestine to pass through the bowel walls and stimulate immune cells.
“In rats, it’s an adaptive response,” Dr. Mayer said. “If they’re born into a stressful, hostile environment, nature programs them to be more vigilant and stress responsive in their future life.”
He said up to 70 percent of the patients he treats for chronic gut disorders had experienced early childhood traumas like parents’ divorces, chronic illnesses or parents’ deaths. “I think that what happens in early life, along with an individual’s genetic background, programs how a person will respond to stress for the rest of his or her life,” he said.
Either way, what is good for one brain is often good for the other, too. A team of researchers from Penn State University recently discovered a possible new direction in treating intestinal disorders, biofeedback for the brain in the gut.
CALMING DOWN THOSE HYPERACTIVE MAST CELLS
I was now intent on finding a way to soothe my mast cells so they wouldn’t overwork themselves rushing to my rescue when there were no invaders to kill.
When my mast cells were working too hard, my gut didn’t feel disorganized or uncentered as it had during the C. difficile infection. It did feel like I was exerting too much pressure on my GI tract, especially on my intestines. I felt a kind of subtle tightness in the area.
So I did some simple breath work (pranayama) and visualized removing the tightness, making it roomier inside my gut. And I instantly felt better and all the symptoms stopped. Since then, when I’ve felt myself tightening up in there, I’ve been able to use the technique to reduce the pressure.
What a relief!
And a longer guided relaxation video for visualizing health.
Please remember that breath work and visualizations don’t need to be done seated cross legged on the floor. Try doing them sitting in a chair, standing, lying down, walking – wherever you are. And they don’t have to be done for a long period. Even 30 seconds can make an enormous difference.
Brown, H. (August 23 2005). The Other Brain Also Deals with Many Woes. The New York Times. See http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/23/health/23gut.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
© Copyright 2014 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.
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