My gut has a mind of its own


I take good care of my brain. I work hard at learning more all the time about how to support and foster it in spite of this tedious collage of illnesses. Neurology interests me — always has. Now that it’s so personal an issue, it’s positively compelling. Neurology’s very complex, and hooks into everything — fascinatingly fractal, in the way it repeats the same physiological “phrases” to very different effect in different parts of the body in response to different changes.

I’ve been wrestling with my gut this past year or so. Lately, it looks and feels like someone’s taking a bicycle pump to it and bringing it up a little more every day. When it interferes with your breathing, that’s a lot of bloat!

I’ve found the gastrointestinal (GI) system to be a bit of a trial. It’s very complex, and hooks into everything. There’s no getting away from the endless iterations of its main roles of sensing, transforming, processing, and discarding: at the intracellular level, intercellular level, endocrine level, organ level, and so on.

Some observant part of my brain notes that the same characteristics I find appealing in neurology, are the same ones I find appalling in gastroenterology.

And the gut has so much STUFF in it…

  • The liver parked under the ribs at one side, the spleen at the other, holding half your blood at any one time, right across the top of your abdomen;
  • The endless loops of squirming intestine, stretching and shifting within their blobby webs of mesentery, shoving along several pounds of food residue at any one time along its length;
  • Lymphatic nodes linked in constellations in the shining webs of mesentery and glistening loops of intestine, ready to respond instantly to allergens or pathogens or anything else in your GI tract that could make your body revolt;
  • Major vessels, the abdominal aorta and the vena cava, coursing alongside the spine, apparently apart from the mess, but branching out so thoroughly and so minutely into the organs and the mesentery that the smartest rats in science couldn’t make it through that maze;
  • The tenth cranial nerve, forming an intimate and instant link between your brain and your gut, linking your brain directly to the largest grouping of nerves outside your brain, the nerves that surround and penetrate your organs and your gut, embedded in and supported by that amazing net of connective and fatty tissue, the mesentery;
  • And let’s not even go into the endocrine system, responding minutely — at the level of individual molecules at times — to the constituents in your food, the way you feel about them, what you need them for right then, what else you’re sensing at the time, and even what time of day or year or month it is… then hooking the info back out through the nervous system, cardiovascular system, lymphatic system, and of course the gastrointestinal system.

I was sitting in my Epsom bath today, mulling this over after the battery in my e-book died. I had done the squishing of my legs and arms with the washcloth, and ran it over my neck and back and sides too, but had a terrible time making myself touch my abdomen. It felt just awful. It also felt like it was somewhat detached from me, like it was floating a couple of inches off my back and spine, simply hovering, slightly displaced, in front of the rest of my physical self. Touching it was deeply upsetting in some way, triggering a wordless revulsion.

This is not an unusual experience for CRPSers. We often feel as if the affected parts of our bodies are almost separate from us, or like they belong to someone else, and touching them is — even apart from the allodynia — a crankiness-inducing, unpleasant experience. It’s a perceptual trick the brain plays, probably part of its general effort to manage more ghastliness than it’s really set up to deal with.

One reason I do the Epsom baths (and the stretching, and the activity, and the relaxation meditations, and the aikido/tai chi/qigong, etc.) is to stay on good terms with my body. That whole self-alienation thing is just too wrong, to me — my life is always best when I’m in my skin, so to speak, whether or not my circumstances suck.

Also, to be fair, my body has done nothing wrong; it just got some of the shortest darn straws out there, and it’s doing its mighty best to manage that. It doesn’t deserve my loathing at all. So, I work to keep on good terms with it.

This is probably one reason why I’m still often functional, frequently productive, and can still walk a mile without sitting down to rest on a good day — even after 15 years with this disease on little or no medication (here’s why no CNS depressants like narcotics, here’s why minimal other meds.)

Anyway, there I was in the bath, watching my belly inflate and almost float away, even though I was Epsom bathing (which usually calms my systems down), and realizing I was finding it unbearable to touch the darn thing, even though it was practically in front of me.

I thought, “Neurology is not that hard for me. Why is gastroenterology so impenetrable? Why am I making so little headway on figuring out this stomach stuff, and dealing with so many setbacks? Why do I get these little tailspins of terror about it? What’s going on in… the second largest collection of nerves outside my brain?” I said, as the lightbulb over my head turned on.

I thought, “I’ve been having a lot of trouble with gastroenterology. But I can usually do neurology.”

And the word for the neurology of the gut, ladies and gentlemen, is neurogastroenterology. (Break it down: neuro meaning nerves, gastro meaning stomach, entero meaning inestines, ology meaning study of. Now you have it.)

I’m pretty sure I can do that. I can sure take a stab at it.

First lesson: review the vagus, a.k.a. Cranial Nerve X. It’s a doozy.

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