Highly Sensitive Digestion Issues and the Way Home: let your gut guide you

I am a highly sensitive person (HSP) with a long history of digestive issues. This is a condensed bio of my “food history” and some of the things I’ve come to know about how my sensitivity relates to my digestion.  It’s also a story of how my body and its many issues turned out to be a road back to myself.

For the longest time, my food-life revolved around eating what I was supposed to eat. Regardless of whether the Dutch meat-vegetables-potatoes (and lots of bread) diet sat well with me, I believed that that was just “what food is”. Perhaps, if it wasn’t for the fact that I truly loathe meat, I may never have started to listen to what my body wanted to eat at all. (note: this is not an anti-meat post, just a “food is personal” post!)

Ah, the good ol’ days…

Some 30 years ago, it was pretty much “eat the food put on the table and don’t complain, kids in Africa are starving after all”. The upsurge of info on food sensitivities, gluten intolerance and even mainstream acceptance of vegetarianism are all pretty recent phenomena. Chances are that unless you grew up in quite a progressive / alternative family, you learned to make do with what was “supposedly” good for you. At the time, nobody seemed to know any better.

I spent a lot of time trying to make myself eat what I was supposed to eat.  As such I also learned that any digestive discomfort was apparently some kind of anomaly, some kind of deficit in me.

As a kid, I thought that since I was eating what I was supposed to eat, any adverse reaction from my body must be because there was something wrong with me. The times when I was huddled up in child’s pose after dinner, in order to deal with all the intestinal cramps, should have been too numerous to brush off as “not important”, yet brushed off they were.

When you can’t stomach the things that other people can

At the time, I didn’t know that I was a highly sensitive person. If you are a highly sensitive person however, then what is seemingly “no problem” for most people, might actually give you cramps, stomach ache, rashes and a whole onslaught of physical symptoms. Considering the amount of hormones, pesticides and let’s not forget the unnecessary addition of white sugar to pretty much all processed foods, it’s no surprise really that our bodies start acting up.  If you belong to that subset of the population that is more sensitive to stimuli in general, then chances are that you own an equally sensitive digestive system, that reacts more extremely to what you put into it than is ‘common’.

Despite the trouble that this can create for you, I believe this is actually a good thing. While sensitivity to anything is commonly branded as a lack of strength or endurance I think it is much more accurate to see it as a precise recognition of what is and isn’t right for you. As such, it is actually an intelligent quality. There is a reason after all that monsters are depicted as big crude beings that stomp around without knowing what is what. The only reason that sensitivity is branded as a negative quality is that most of us haven’t learned how to practically handle it.

Once I went to college and started living on my own, I started paying more attention to how my body responded to different foods. I met other people who ate “non-standard” foods and I was able to shake off my family’s fears that “vegetarianism = malnutrition = death” (yep, really!). Since I was living alone, I was also able to eat what I wanted as opposed to eating what was served. (One of the things I learned to appreciate was plain yoghurt. Coming from a sugary-deserts family, it took some time for my tongue to adapt to the more subtle and sour flavor, but once it did, I really loved it).

Think with your gut

Over time, I discovered that my gut truly has a mind of its own. It taught me to listen, not just to how things tasted and felt on my tongue but to trace food down my throat and notice whether my gut liked it too. At times, my tongue and gut were at odds and I had to ask myself: are a few seconds of pleasure worth 24 hours of intestinal unhappiness? Initially, it was a tough choice to make. Yet, the more I started paying attention to the well-being of my gut, the more obvious it became that the only reason I didn’t used to think that the well-being of my gut was important was because I didn’t allow myself to be aware of it.

ithinkthereforeiamcTruly, I’d been cut off from how my belly felt for many years. I’d actually learned to do this as a coping strategy for all the cramps and discomfort. Like most of us, I’d learned to see the gut as a lesser subset of our body anyway, one that wasn’t really essential, not like the brain. If you ask me now however, I’d be adamant about showing you that your gut has important intelligence of its own and that scientific proof is mounting that the brain is not as all-central as we used to believe.

Looking back though, it is not just intestinal cramps that prompted me to disconnect my awareness from my gut when I was little. Little did I know then that I was highly sensitive and that -on top of everything else- this can come with its own brand of psychic or energetic awareness, most of which I felt in my gut.

Belly intuition and stress

While clairvoyance generally gets a lot of popular attention, there are a lot of people who have a 6th sense that is mainly feeling-based. Many HSP’s receive all kinds of subtle impressions about the world in the form of subtle physical and (sometimes not so subtle) emotional sensations. A lot of this is felt in the stomach and lower belly area. Yet, without any knowledge of what all that is or means, it’s logical to start to experience your belly and gut as a part of you that just “feels weird and uncomfortable”.

Add to this the fact that stress affects digestion, and the fact that HSP’s are generally more stress prone anyway, and you’ve got a recipe for chronic digestive issues. (HSP’s notice more subtleties in their environment. This creates a chronically higher “information load” and since we also notice things that most people overlook, we have a knack for noticing potential early signs of danger. This makes us into wonderful “scouts” and “advisors” yet in the modern info and overwhelm rich world it also makes us more stress-prone.)

As a result of all this gut discomfort, and for lack of a better strategy, a lot of HSP’s cut off their awareness from their belly area. Without awareness, there is no discomfort, just an unobtrusive numbness.  Without awareness however, your gut is no longer able to communicate with you the way it is meant to. As a result, digestive issues may seem a mystery that “arises out of the blue”. When we no longer feel the responses of our gut in the moment, we don’t feel the waxing and waning of digestive issues and hence are no longer able to figure out what is happening.

Reconnecting with your gut

Since my college years, I’ve slowly learned how to restore my relationship with my body. I started seeking info and advice on digestion and, as my gut calmed down, I started learning about all the energetic info I was picking up and how to decipher it. I also learned how to talk to my body.

Nowadays, I consult with my body daily. It’s not me who decides what to eat. After all, it’s not me that does the eating, it’s my body. So I ask my body what is right for it to eat, and the answers vary. What is right for me one day, is not necessarily right the next day.

There have also been instances where I ignored what my body wanted and I literally had to vomit up the supposedly wonderful alfalfa that I forced myself to eat. The thing is, our bodies are just like us. We cannot handle everything every day, no matter how good it may be for us in theory.

A similar thing would happen whenever I ignored energetic cues that my body was giving me. While I wouldn’t vomit, I’d often have some kind of unpleasant experience when I ignored the inner guidance my gut was giving me. It’s not that those unpleasant experiences were new, rather, I learned that there was a warning preceding them that I had habitually come to ignore.

Learning how to decipher subtle body signals

heartcentered course bigWhen I learned to put one and one together,  my self-awareness and energetic know-how improved. In this way, I’ve slowly come to learn to decipher the subtle physical sensations that cue me in on the world around me. As such, instead of running from my body screaming, I’ve learned to decode and decipher, to tune in and to listen.

It turns out that my body was on my side all along.

Our HSP body as a trusted guide

By learning to work with my sensitive body, I’ve learned to let it guide and help me.

By learning to stay within my natural boundaries, I’ve learned to lower the stress levels that previously felt out of my control.

Your body is on your side too. No matter how it may be feeling right now and no matter how much of a hard time your body may be giving you, it’s doing its best to talk to you, to keep you on track, to let you know what you need to know in order to thrive.

Learning our own language

Each of us has a body with its own unique language.  We can start tuning in to that language by noticing how things affect us physically (as opposed to limiting our focus to how we believe things are supposed to affect us). That right there is the difference between living your unique life that works for you versus trying to be who you think you’re supposed to be (and not having such a great time of it either). It is also the difference between working with what you’ve got versus attempting to work with what you think you’re supposed to have.

For me, my food issues were the first real wake-up call that prompted me to connect with my body on a whole new level. Once I did, I discovered that my body -far from being a problem- was actually my yellow brick road home.

It is through my body’s signals and preferences that I was able to reconnect with what was right for me. Much as we like to think that it is “reason”, “knowledge” or “meditation on an abstract sense of a higher self” that will guide us, it is actually our bodies that want to take us by the hand and help us find our way.

Your body really loves you!

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1 Varonica May 26, 2014

I thought this was just me and I’m so glad to know that someone else has experienced this. In the past few years, I’ve had digestive issues that I mostly tried to ignore. Earlier in the year I really began to listen to my body and changed some things around. My stomach was definitely my connection to my body and my self. And although I’ve connected with the introvert definition, I m just learning about sensitivity and connecting to that definition. This post further confirms what I’ve found in the field of my life! Thanks for sharing!

2 Caroline van Kimmenade May 26, 2014

Hi Varonica,

You’re very welcome. I’m glad it’s helping to clarify/confirm the connection between body – introversion and sensitivity for you.

3 Paeonia June 4, 2014

I’ve gotten better at listening to my body and saying no both to myself and others when it comes to foods I’m sensitive to, or at least not having that final bite that puts me over the edge into a lengthy stomach ache. Apples and apple juice, baba ganouj, vegan “ribs”, etc.

You didn’t say whether you eventually got diagnosed with any digestion-related medical issue. I got re-diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease so I’m trying to pay even more attention to what food my body handles poorly.

4 Kathryn Hall June 18, 2014

Really interesting Caroline. I have lots of sensitivities to food but have always struggled to pin down the issues (mainly because I’ve been in a bit of denial as I really love food). This post makes so much sense though – from now on I’m really going to try and listen to my body more. Thank you for sharing.

5 Caroline van Kimmenade June 20, 2014

That’s excellent Kathryn! Love hearing that. We live in a good time for food changes… there’s lots of recipe sites for all kinds of food sensitivies and approaches. E.g. One of my big gluten “aha’s” was that I can use rice-noodles instead of spaghetti for the comfort-food spaghetti feel.

6 Anna November 15, 2014

It wasn’t until the doctor said “have you ever thought of trying therapy” that I even realized the two were connected. I begrudgingly learned so much about different foods and diets, and now I made one seemingly small (but actually fundamental) change and don’t eat unless I let myself relax first (unless I feel hungry, which means I’m pretty hungry if I can be overwhelmed and still notice hunger).

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