A Circular Understanding

New Gut Biology and Traditional Chinese Medicine



We have all experienced the following scenario: Imagine someone is tailgating you for a while. You change to the next lane in order to allow the vehicle to pass. The tailgater speeds ahead only to swerve abruptly in front of you. You brake hard to avoid hitting the vehicle, causing you to swerve to the next lane without notice.

In this scenario you might immediately feel your facial muscles tighten with anger, knots form in your stomach and choice words cross your lips. Do you know what is happening between your brain and your body when this reaction happens? Scientists have begun to explore this exact connection between our mind and our gut.

A new modern biology is emerging out of the complex study of communication between the brain and the gut when strong emotions are experienced. It is no surprise that every emotion has a corresponding facial expression triggered by signals from the nervous system to the small facial muscles. However, recently scientists have found that at the same time facial expressions are being expressed, the brain is also sending signals to the digestive system.

Today, scientists are studying the microbiome in the gut—demonstrating the gut and the brain are closely linked through circular, bidirectional signaling pathways that include nerves, hormones and inflammatory molecules. Rich sensory information generated in the gut (called gut sensations) reaches the brain, and the brain sends signals back to the gut (called gut reaction) to adjust its function in a yin-yang handshaking communication. The close interactions of these two pathways play a crucial role in the generation of emotions and optimal gut function in an intricate linkage.

Surprisingly, it is a 4,000-year-old ancient idea of rise or descent of energy due to emotional disturbance that may bridge and reinforce the most recent modern biology and the mind-gut connection. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners take into account emotional factors when making a diagnosis. In TCM, a patient’s current emotional state has a direct correlation to their organs. For example, the liver is associated with the negative emotion of anger. Resentment, frustration and irritability can arise from that most basic feeling of anger.

This rise in negative emotional energy can cause the energy to rise to the head and result in headaches or dizziness. Although emotions are not always believed to be the direct cause of an ailment, there is an undeniable correlation we now know among emotions, organs and the progression of ailments based on the research of the mind-gut-microbiome axis.

Another example of such findings came out of Caltech, when their research investigators proved brain and gut connection in complex behavior disorders such as autism. They found up to 40 percent of autism patients suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms, mostly altered bowel habits, abdominal pain and discomfort and irritable bowel syndrome. These findings strongly suggest a new treatment paradigm for autism, by focusing on dietary changes and other alternative therapies to heal the gut to alleviate the disorder’s symptoms.

Whereas Western medicine uses drugs to provide relief for discomfort, it may take several different drug combinations before a patient finds any comprehensive relief. The side effect of drugs must also be considered in such treatment programs, as it is possible to trade one symptom for another. Additionally, it may not be best or even possible to isolate symptoms when looking for relief or a cure for what ails us.

Treating the body with a more holistic approach, considering internal and external factors, emotions and lifestyle choices, and then analyzing physical symptoms may help to resolve issues in a way that other more common, traditional Western therapies cannot. TCM is unique in its belief that cause and effect are not linear, but circular. This means that the cause of an ailment may be an emotion, but also that an ailment can lead to an emotion.

By striving to balance the organ related to the person’s emotional state, the emotion can be balanced as well, and vice versa. Acupuncture is one way to accomplish this re-alignment. And by combining the recognition of the modern-day discoveries and TCM modalities, an integrated TCM practitioner can optimally restore the patient’s health, both mentally and physiologically.

Steve Liu, L.Ac., BSEE works at HanLing Acupuncture Healing Center, in Tucson. Connect at 520-878-8116 or hlahc.com. See ad, page 35.

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