Is dopamine the key to understanding IBS?
On this Collective Insight podcast, Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, a groundbreaking neuroscientist and best-selling author of “How Emotions Are Made,” reveals the link between poo-ing and happiness. Her work changed the way I think about IBS, and the interconnections between my brain and body.
Before I moved into my van, I was a mess. Confronted with novelty on an epic scale (transferring my life from indoors to outdoors), my brain went into meltdown, meaning I was forgetting things, bumping into things, not eating, and feeling like I was running in circles. As I packed my winter clothes into boxes, I fretted about everything from security to toilet roll.
My mind was furiously trying to imagine the life I was to about on. But it was trying to see something that was, at the time, unknowable. A brand new experience. I’d be forced to roll with it, deal with issues as they arose, be flexible. I’m not a “roll with it” type person. I don’t like surprises. I plan my days. I plan my weekly menus for God’s sake.
I also live in dread of a flare-up, and all my mind could foresee was the horror of living without a working bathroom. What if I can’t go? For days? Weeks? As a woman with IBS, I know too well the gloom of blocked bowels. It sucks the life out of you, wearing you down to misery. Dr. Barrett explains why.
THE ANAL STAGE
Feel free to listen to the podcast, but here, I break it down in relation to my experience of moving into the van and living with IBS because I can relate to so much of what she says. Few of us know that the model of brain physiology popular today has actually been around since Plato.
In 1978 Carl Sagan won a Pulitzer for his book, The Dragons of Eden, using the same thesis, which cites the idea that the organ is split into three levels: the lizard brain or base animal instinct; the limbic system responsible for emotion, and the neocortex, which houses the rational mind, the executive reasoning function that supposedly separates humans from animals.
Barrett says that before Sagan’s book, scientists already knew the theory was flawed, and that the brain really worked via signalling systems across complex neural pathways. But that’s doesn’t mean that all theories, even flawed ones, don’t play an important role on the path to understanding, says Barrett.
Referencing Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, she says the psychologist noticed something others didn’t, and even though he got the mechanism wrong, the idea was right. Today, neuroscience shows that most of the serotonin used by the brain is produced in the gut. After a bowel movement, there’s a flush of serotonin causing feelings of comfort and relief. One doctor calls this sensation, “poophoria.”
This explains much of the misery of IBS, as it make sense then that if you can’t clear your bowels, you miss out on that rush of serotonin and as a result, feel gloomy, or even depressed. On top, this serotonin release is not specific to excretion. Instead, the brain and gut are in constant communication in order to continuously regulate metabolic function.
In fact, the job of most neurotransmitters, Barrett explains, is in service of metabolic regulation. Serotonin allows you to spend energy when there’s no immediate reward. It tracks reward history so you know when to expend energy and when not. By contrast, dopamine is excreted when the brain is preparing to expend effort to get a reward. But it’s the effort (not the reward) that produces the dopamine.
The two most expensive things the body can do from an energy standpoint are move or learn something new. According to Barrett, the brain is a predictive organ. Its main job is to take care of the body using the senses to assess environment. It’s constantly reviewing and predicting every emotion, feeling, and thought in order to gauge the level of energy needed to survive.
You get a dopamine rush when you move or learn because both require effort. The anticipation felt before learning something new is really the brain preparing for an expected reward. In some people, this pathway is faulty, leading to conditions such as depression and anxiety, and possibly even autism and schizophrenia, says Barrett.
HOW TO GET UNSTUCK
People with these conditions don’t have a problem enjoying a reward when it’s in their hands but they can’t anticipate it, as they always imagine the worst. A regular complaint of women with IBS who suffer with chronic constipation is that they feel “stuck.” This is true for me. More than twenty years ago, I was diagnosed clinically depressed.
More recently, it took me nine months to move into my van, and even then, I had to force myself (read: make myself homeless) to do finally do it. I could only see the problems not the rewards, resulting in extreme anxiety. I now wonder how many things I’ve missed out on in life because I only see the problems instead the potential rewards?
Contrary to the concept pushed by contemporary psychology, your brain is not a jumbled mystery hiding layers of you that only a trained psychologist can untangle. Instead, your brain uses the senses to tell you everything you need to know about yourself and your environment to make sure you are getting everything you need to be your optimal self.
Barrett refers to the mind as a “cultivator of the past,” using past information as a platform from which to enter the future. To remember is to re-instate neural pathways from the past. And when you re-instate them, you can modify them through learning. This is good news.
It means that you can upgrade your emotional wellbeing by choosing experiences that build new neural pathways between the brain and gut. Which is exactly what I (unknowingly) did by moving into the van. At the start of week 5, I’m in love with van-life and now, wake up every day ready for the next adventure. My nerves are still jumpy but my metabolism is humming.
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What goal or change has been on your mind that you keep putting off? Are you only seeing the problems? Make a list of the problems you see. Then, make a list of the rewards. Compare the two lists.
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