Even though I’m a Family Physician (about as general as you can get), I’ve acquired a reputation for specializing in the gut even though I am not technically a GI specialist. But in a way I am a gut specialist in that I do know quite a bit about how the whole system is supposed to work and what can take it offline (low stomach acid, low pancreatic function, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, etc, etc). But I have to tell you, I just finished a training that has significantly broadened my understanding of how the gut works (and how the rest of the body functions, for that matter). I have been studying this topic for three years and I’m just about to get certified. The specific program is called Somatic Experiencing and I will soon be a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP).
It is very difficult to describe this work in a sound bite. I’m hoping to figure out how to explain it and distill the information in the blog over the next few weeks to months. This training has helped me start to understand how our nervous system get’s conditioned from stress and trauma to significantly affect our digestion, immune system, and muscular system. This is such an important missing piece for understanding gut health. However, in addition to helping physiology, Somatic Experiencing can also significantly improve mental functioning, mood, and sleep.
I think one of the reasons this topic is so hard to tackle is that our entire society (western, North American) is not oriented toward allowing our bodies to heal themselves and recalibrate when we have suffered some type of injury to the system. A perfect example of this may have happened to you or someone you love. Picture yourself driving down the street in your town on a perfectly sunny day. You're listening to the radio, you’re in a relaxed mood, and everything seems right in the world. All of a sudden, while at a stoplight, you get rear ended. Maybe you saw the other car right before it hit you, or maybe you didn’t know it was coming at all. And BAM! You're knocked out of your reverie like a lightning bolt.
Ok, so this is a really, really common scenario, right? If you don’t have a major injury, what would you do next? Perhaps you would get out of the car to assess the damage (to the car), check on the other driver, call your spouse, call the police, call your insurance company, move the cars out to the way...on and on and on until you ended up at home that night after a blur of activity. But it is unlikely you would stay in your car, notice what was happening in your body at that moment, and allow your nervous system to fully settle back down to a sense of safety before you moved on to the tasks necessary to take care of the accident. This is what your physiology would really like you to do. Gosh, if you did that, someone may call an ambulance and you’d be whisked off to the hospital because that type of behavior would be so unusual. It would be especially unusual if you did not have a major injury preventing you from getting out of the car. It would be weird right? And in actuality, it likely really isn’t even possible. Because you have to get those tasks done.
This is what I’m talking about when I say our society doesn’t support normal recalibrations of the nervous system when we have had an injury. Getting hit by a 2 ton object out of nowhere is a real insult to our body, our sense of safety, and our nervous system (thank God for seatbelts and airbags which shield us from experiencing the full force of that event). Even if nothing is “physically damaged”, your nervous system is on high alert that you just had a life threatening event. It needs time to orient to the event, assess your level of safety, and then come back down into a grounded state. It wants to do that and it’s designed to do that.
But the pace of our lives and our knowledge about our bodies doesn’t really support coming back into a restful parasympathetic state. SE, as a treatment modality, helps to unpack some of that “stuck” energy (in fight, flight, or freeze) so that you can get back to a more comfortable state of resilience. It’s done in a setting that would look like psychotherapy (talk therapy) or massage therapy. So by seeing an SE trained therapist after an accident, you can get help in re-calibrating your system.
When you get stuck in one of those states of fight, flight, or freeze your body has a difficult time getting back to a place of rest which would be optimal conditions for digesting your food! This is how SE comes into play when I am thinking about gut health.
SE can actually be applied to many types of stresses, injuries, and traumas; not just car accidents. But talking about an accident is one of the most simple and relatable events which helps me to start laying out some of these concepts.
So, that’s all for now. I’ll keep you posted as I start to navigate how to talk about this type of work with you all.