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Mental Health and Your Belly

Dr. Negin Zare

Did you know that your mental health can directly impact your digestion?

Let’s review the basics:

We have two nervous systems: your “fight or flight” or sympathetic nervous system and your “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system.

When we are vertical, our bodies are in “action” mode. This means that we are ready to move and “do.” If we go back to caveman times, this is when we are hunting and gathering. Chasing or getting chased by something. When you are in this state, you are alert and concentrating on getting something done.

The opposite of this is when you are horizontal. When you are resting and relaxing, your body is in a state where it can rejuvenate, organize, digest and repair itself. When a caveman is horizontal, it means it’s time for rest!

How does this link up to mental health and modern life?

Nowadays, overworking, overdoing, and overextending yourself has gotten more praise and recognition, when in fact it should be the opposite. People are running on fumes and are more stressed than ever before and it’s time to

s l o w d o w n . . .

Depleting yourself and depriving your body and mind of the opportunity to reorganize and replenish itself can lead to very unhealthy long-term consequences such as stomach and intestinal ulcers, increased cortisol, adrenal fatigue, recurrent headaches or migraines, weight gain or loss, autoimmune flare-ups, muscle tension and spasms, and much more.

What can you do about it?

Take a deep breath before you eat. You wouldn’t see a caveman eating while running away from a bear, so you should be cognizant of this analogy as you prepare to eat your meals. Turn off distractions, put your phone down, go outside if you can, roll a window down or find a way to “rest” so you can “digest.” Preparing your body for intaking food signals to your gut that you are ready to produce digestive enzymes and begin the absorption of all the nutrients from your food. If you are in a state of stress, your body will either slow down the digestion process (to conserve energy and help you run from the bear) or it can do the reverse and rapidly eliminate your food such as in the case of IBS (think of this as your body wanting to “dump” the food so you are lighter and can run away faster from the bear that is chasing you)!

Preparing your body to accept, absorb and assimilate your food is one of the best things you can do for you digestive system.

What else can you do?


I read a book by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky entitled “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” and it is a perfect demonstration of what was relayed above. Zebras don’t get ulcers because they know when to rest. They switch off their sympathetic nervous systems and activate their parasympathetic nervous systems to provide a healthy balance in their bodies.

Start by taking 10-15 minutes for yourself to unwind throughout the day (preferably multiple times a day). Get horizontal, put your hands on your belly and your heart and practice diaphragmatic breathing. Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth. Exhales should be longer than inhales and keep the breathing intentional. Envision that you are pulling fresh, oxygenated air down, down, down into your belly and even down to your pelvic floor. If you hear belly sounds, even better! If you have had sessions with me, you know how exciting bowel sounds are to me, since they are an auditory reminder that you are activating your parasympathetic nervous system!

Summary: Slow down. Be still. Be aware. Take time for yourself. Breathe. Your mind and body will thank you!


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Holly Horikawa PT, DPT, CLT

Owner and Founder

Dr. Horikawa received her Doctorate in physical therapy from Duke University in 2005 and founded Lokahi Physical Therapy & Wellness in 2013.

R.A. Sovilla

Patient Advocate

R.A. Sovilla suffered with pelvic pain due to endometriosis for over a decade. She is currently living pain-free post surgery and co-leads the OC Chronic Pelvic Pain Support Group with Dr. Horikawa.

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