Digestive Disorders And The Mind

The mind is the most powerful source of energy known to man.

Indigestion is a psychosomatic disease, which means it has its roots in the mind and flowers in the body. The link between the digestive system and the mind is easily demonstrated when we realize that if we are hungry, just the thought of food is enough to start our salivary and digestive juices running. As soon as we fill the stomach, the mind is satisfied. Mental depression produces loss of appetite accompanied by a heavy feeling in the stomach, while fear gives us butterflies, a fluttering feeling in the pit of our stomach. The mind-body is an integrated unit so that mental conflicts are reflected physically in one way or another, and vice-versa. For this reason mental problems, whether large or small, tend to weaken the body and the digestive system is one of the most susceptible areas. Weakness sometimes starts off as indigestion and discomfort, and can quickly progress to more serious forms of disease such as ulcer, heart disease, etc.

The stomach and stress

Of all the digestive organs, the stomach is the one most often subjected to research into the effects of mind on body. As early as 1833 the physician Beaumont observed the reddening of the stomach lining during emotional upset in a patient with a gunshot wound. This wound had not healed properly but had left a fistula, a passage from the stomach to the outside through which Beaumont made his observations and collected secretions under different emotional states including hunger, pain, frustration, anger, joy, sorrow and contentment.

More recent studies have shown that students who feel the pressures of serious examinations, secrete excessive hydrochloric acid, the corrosive effect of which is probably one of the major causes of peptic ulcer.*1 These findings were confirmed in individuals in whom anxiety, anger and resentment were elicited by a stressful interview.*2

Probably every physician and ulcer patient knows the relationship between mental tension, stress and ulcers. Ulcer is the classic example of psychosomatic disease; It is estimated that 1 out of 10 Americans will suffer from a peptic ulcer during his lifetime, and most of these will be in high pressure jobs, especially executives in competitive professions such as advertising. People in professions such as taxi driving, where they are subjected to constant tension, very commonly develop ulcers.

Sidney Cobb of Brown University (USA) has determined that air traffic controllers who are under keen stress have a higher incidence of ulcers, hypertension and diabetes than those 2nd class licences not under comparable stress. He also found that auto workers laid off in Detroit showed an increased incidence of ulcers at the time of their forced termination. Other workers developed cancer, arthritis, hypertension, alcoholism and gout.*3

Neal Milter, psychologist at Rockefeller University (USA) and a pioneer in the study of the autonomic nervous system states:

"There is considerable evidence that people under stress conditions, like combat, have stomach lesions. This is backed up by experimental evidence that... subjecting animals to stress will cause stomach lesions."*4

John W. Mason of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (USA) has been quoted as saying:

"There is no shortage of data relating disease to psychological factors. The shortage is only in our knowledge of the mediating mechanisms."*5

In this light, different mental mechanisms and examples of personality type are now being observed to try to explain the psychosomatic factor in disease. In the area of digestive problems, jealousy is thought to be an underlying cause of ulcer, anger of hyperacidity and dyspepsia, greed of obesity, frustration of diarrhoea, and possessiveness of constipation. In other disease areas, cancer victims are thought to be those who were not close to their parents in childhood and who hide their emotions. Even when under stress they say 'Everything's fine!' Heart attack victims tend to be just the opposite as they feel they are under greater stress than they really are. People with arthritis, especially women, tend to have unfulfilled ambitions due to feelings of inadequacy when they were children. Many of these conditions set in after some traumatic experience triggers it.

One thing that has become clearer over the past decade is the fact that non-specific mental stresses are at the base of many illnesses and that much of the effect of stress is due to our inner response to it.

Hans Selye in his book Stress Without Distress states: "We have seen that it is immaterial whether a stressor is pleasant or unpleasant, its stressor effect depends merely on the intensity of the demand made upon the adaptive capacity of the body." "Mental tensions, frustrations, insecurity and aimlessness are among the most damaging stressors, and psychosomatic studies have shown how often they cause migraine headaches, peptic ulcers, heart attacks, hypertension..."

How the mind affects the body and causes disease is a matter of psyche and soma, and their interrelationship. In order to remove the roots of disease, and prevent them from growing back or taking further root in some other area, we must first understand the role of thought on emotion and emotion on body.

The mind-body link

The digestive system is a very sensitive mirror of the mind because it is almost wholly under the influence of the autonomic nervous system which in turn is thought to be governed by the limbic area of the brain. The emotions and mental processes act directly on the limbic area of the brain and via the autonomic nervous system they affect the stomach and digestive organs.

If you remove a piece of intestine from the body and place it in a supportive environment, where all its needs are met, it will live and continue to contract and relax rhythmically. It acts as an independent creature in this environment, albeit a very primitive one. This is because nature has equipped it with its own intrinsic nerve supply which causes it to beat rhythmically, in the same way as the heart muscle beats, because of its inner electrical activity. When we view this process within the context of the body, other controlling factors come into play, the major controller being the brain-mind complex. The brain sends wires (nerves) out to the periphery so that messages can pass freely. Because the digestive system is amongst the most primitive we possess, it does not require conscious control. Unconscious control is enough, and this is attained through the autonomic nervous system.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system are antagonistic but complementary in the healthy individual. The parasympathetic system, which dominates in the relaxed state, turns on the digestive juices, speeds up peristalsis and opens the sphincters. The sympathetic system does the opposite. They are like the tone and volume controls on a radio, increasing or decreasing the volume, but not altering the basic program.

These systems are balanced and can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. They depend on each other and must be properly harmonized to function at peak efficiency. Imbalance obviously results in disease.

In most people the control of the autonomic system is subconscious. Mental and neurological circuits, which have usually been pre-programmed either by genetics or environmental conditioning, operate in the main controlling mechanisms. For example the rate of metabolism of food, energy turnover, and thus degrees of hunger, appetite and frequency of food intake depend on a complex neuroendocrine balance. The thyroid gland, for example which controls metabolism, should not be over or under active as this may result in abnormal physical and mental states. The circuits within the hypothalamus which control hunger and satiation, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrines must be in tune with our deeper needs.

The mind works synchronously and interdependently with the body. It acts especially on the limbic system which contains the hypothalamus, the controller of our reactions to emotional and mental change and their resultant effects on the body. Autonomic stability therefore depends on mental and emotional stability. This stability is vital because the autonomic nervous system controls all our vital functions and mediates our involuntary responses to our environment.

The autonomic system in man can be either stable or labile (unstable). The labile or weak system is more prone to psychosomatic disease and mental illness. Worry, tension, dissipation of concentration, an unorganised and unfulfilling lifestyle, and an inability to cope with stress are the major factors operating in autonomic lability.

The mind is like the sea, the body is the land, and their sphere of interaction is the seashore. When the mind is peaceful and relaxed, the sea is calm. However, when the mind is troubled, the sea becomes turbulent and waves beat against the shore, tearing away large sections of the land. This is the psychosomatic disease process which results in indigestion, constipation, peptic ulcer, diarrhoea and so many other minor and major diseases.

The mechanisms of disease

Anxiety is known to cause all manner of gastrointestinal malfunctions, running the entire gamut from indigestion to ulceration. Why this occurs is a vexed question. Perhaps we can understand the process better if we look at primitive animals whose nervous system is roughly equivalent to ours at the level of the autonomic nervous system, the hind or primitive brain. Some animals react to stress by evacuating the bowel, presumably to make more energy available by reducing the load the body has to carry. In some primitive creatures, notably the sea slug, the whole lower intestine is jettisoned after which it grows back at a later date. In higher animals, such as vertebrates (animals with spinal cords), stress and anxiety may produce diarrhoea, especially in chronic states of tension when the sympathetic nervous system is fatigued.

When we are stressed, the whole body is geared to reducing body weight and definitely not to food intake. We should not eat when we are tense. This is the point that most people do not understand and because of this many fall sick. Initially, digestive upsets, diarrhoea and constipation may occur, but later more serious disease develops when we habitually ignore the warning signals of our body and fail in remedying stress. Our internal attitudes and external environment can create a state of ongoing stress which is difficult to remedy unless you have a system like yoga. If we are in a stressful state in which the tendency is to evacuate the gastrointestinal contents, but we persist in eating, a great deal of harm is done. However, this is a common state of affairs in our modern world. Many businessmen have lunch in a stressed state, anxious to get a large expense account or contract from an important client, hurrying their food, all the while stressed by their ambitions and desires.

When the stressful state becomes ongoing and inappropriate, the different parts of the gastrointestinal tract start to work independently of each other. Communication breaks down between cells, organs and their various functions. The stomach may secrete too much acid while the intestines secrete too little of something else. Inability to digest results and we lose touch with our body. As the mind becomes more and more dissipated, we lose control of even the most basic functions.

Some animals have evolved mechanisms to adapt to stress. For example, rabbits and other ruminants have developed a stomach in which they can deposit grass. While eating in an open sunny area, exposed to predators, the animal must be continually alert and excited so as to be prepared to flee at the slightest warning signal. Later when the animal is safe in the cool protection of dappled shade or its burrow, it can regurgitate the rumen and chew carefully and thoroughly, enjoying food as it should be enjoyed. Man has no such mechanism, however, and must rely on external methods such as yoga to induce a relaxed and controlled state of mind, even in the midst of stresses such as the business lunch, and thereby regain control of his inner world.

Calming the sea

Yoga is probably the best way to calm the stormy, turbulent mind that eats away the body in the psychosomatic process. Yoga is a well known antidote for anxiety, tension and worry as it aids the natural, internal processes and mechanisms of the body to function more effectively. It accomplishes this through its relaxing and soothing action on the mind and body. The lower, more primitive parts of the brain, such as the autonomic nervous system and hypothalamus are rebalanced and integrated with the higher nervous system. It is important to know and remember this, because if we do not find a remedy for stress we are likely to suffer from all sorts of psychosomatic, degenerative and organic diseases. In the short term, asanas and pranayama are utilized to rejuvenate and manipulate the physical body and this has a soothing effect on the mind. When we make the body stronger we also strengthen the mind. In the long term, we need to utilize a variety of easy and simple techniques to reintegrate the lost functions of the body and mind into our conscious awareness. Meditation and concentration exercises achieve this.

By awareness and the practice of relaxation, we can control our bodies and manipulate them as desired. If we are in a stressful situation, our awareness warns us not to eat and to relax with breath awareness or some meditative technique. When we practice these techniques regularly as a part of our daily fives, we relax spontaneously and naturally. As our insight, understanding and intuition are developed, fears and ignorance which lead to tension are removed. Until this stage occurs, inculcate awareness through the medium of yoga, so that you can develop the ability to know when you are tense and when you are relaxed. Only then will you enjoy food the way it should be enjoyed, and with it good vibrant health.


*1. G. F. Mahl, 'Physiological Changes During Chronic Fear, Annals of New York Academy of Science vol. 56, p. 240-252, l952.

*2. S. Wolf & H. G. Wolff, Human Gastric Function, London, Oxford Uni Press, 1943.

*3. *4. *5. 'Mind-Body Link', Science News, Dec. 20-27, vol. 108, 1975.