RHR: How Your Nervous System Impacts Gut Health, with Allison Post

RHR: How Your Nervous System Impacts Gut Health, with Allison Post

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Our modern lives are full of stress, distraction, and disconnection. That has an impact on our nervous systems—and our gut health. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I talk with Allison Post about how your gut wellness is tied to your nervous system and why unwinding and giving your body a chance to rest can improve your health.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Allison’s personal experience with gut issues
  • The gut–mind connection
  • How we’re constantly triggering the sympathetic nervous system
  • The importance of unwinding—and activating a parasympathetic state
  • Methods you can use to unwind and improve your gut health
  • Allison’s online course to help you improve your gut wellness

Show notes:

Hey everybody, it’s Chris Kresser. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week I’m really excited to welcome Allison Post as my guest. Allison is an integrative medicine health coach and somatic educator. In a career spanning four decades, she’s taught courses in mini-modalities and massage, breath and body work, and has helped thousands of adults and children with chronic illness, digestive discomfort, and physical challenges. She guides people through the transitions of pregnancy, birth, chronic stress, menopause, aging, grief and loss, and trauma arising from injuries, surgery, and personal crisis.

Her curiosity has led her to explore many disciplines, and she’s pursued education in Asian and Western bodywork, chi nei tsang, internal organ massage, visceral manipulation, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, ayurveda, hypnotherapy, dance, somatic psychology, and craniosacral therapy. Her latest book, which was co-authored with her husband, is the Gut Wellness Guide: The Power of Breath, Touch, and Awareness to Reduce Stress, Aid Digestion, and Reclaim Whole-Body Health.

I’ve known Allison for almost 20 years, and in fact she was an instrumental part of my healing journey from the initial illness that many of you know about. And I’ve been in touch with Allison over all of these years and I just have the deepest respect for her work and her approach. And most recently, just through my work with patients and my own experience, I’ve come to a renewed appreciation of the role of the nervous system in regulating health in general, but specifically, digestive health. So I’m really looking forward to talking with Allison about these topics, and I hope you enjoy the discussion. Let’s dive in.

Chris Kresser:  Allison, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show. Welcome.

Allison Post:  Thank you so much. Pleasure to be here.

Allison’s Personal Experience with Gut Issues

Chris Kresser:  So, as I prepared for this, I was reflecting on how long we’ve known each other and how that came to be. My memory is always a little bit hazy with details, but I think it’s been, it has to have been 15 years, or close.

Allison Post:  Yeah, I think, actually, a little more than 15.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, maybe.

Allison Post:  Yeah, my first book came out in 2003 and I met you before then.

Chris Kresser:  Wow.

Allison Post:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Time flies. So, I want to tell listeners a little bit about how I came to you and the work that we did together because it was so instrumental in my healing journey. And what’s really interesting to me is how life works and full circle, the work that we started doing together, as people will learn in this podcast, is really focused on the perspective of the gut as a nervous system organ.

Allison Post:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  And now I find that after more than 15 years—and at that time I was not a practitioner. But now as a practitioner myself who’s helping people with G.I. issues and still occasionally dealing with my own, I am really fascinated by and passionate about this lens of looking at the gut as a nervous system organ and the impact that that can have on our overall health and well-being.

Remaining in a constant fight-or-flight state of readiness is incredibly harmful to our bodies and our gut health. Check out this RHR for more on the connection between your nervous system and gut wellness. #healthylifestyle #wellness

So I’m really just excited by this, how this works, like, how these circles happen in life. And just to give listeners a little background on, when I met Allison, I was still in the throes of dealing with my own health challenge, as many of you are aware, and I don’t remember … Do you remember who referred me to you or how I found you?

Allison Post:  I believe it was another practitioner. I think it was Robert Turner.

Chris Kresser:  Oh, yes, Robert Turner. Yeah, so, another practitioner who was also instrumental in my healing journey referred me to Allison, and by then I had exhausted a lot of the, not only the conventional approaches to dealing with gut issues, but also the unconventional approaches, like supplements and herbs, and I had, already by then my supplement graveyard, my cupboard with hundreds of pills and potions and things that had not helped me. I had been on many different special diets, and I had lived at Esalen and explored the emotional and psychosomatic or psychospiritual roots of the condition. And I had done, worked with shamans and just about everything else you could imagine.

And so when I came to Allison, what I learned of her, I understood that she had a different way of looking at the gut and used both craniosacral and chi nei tsang and other modalities to unwind, which is the word that she uses. And you’ll be hearing more about nervous system tension as a way of kind of resetting or reprogramming the gut and creating more … creating that rest-and-digest response, which is absolutely essential for gut health. So, and I think I saw you weekly, or at least every other week, for some period of time, and it was really remarkable to me, the shifts that happened there. Because there was such a deep level of tension there that I wasn’t even consciously aware of that was really just, it felt like my gut was kind of tied up in knots. Now I’ll let you speak a little bit to that. Because you were feeling it.

But it was a profound experience for me to get in touch with that and to gradually unwind that tension. And I think looking back, that was certainly among some other things I was doing at the time, one of the most significant things that allowed me to move forward and continue on my journey. So first of all, thank you again.

Allison Post:  It’s my pleasure. Yeah, I’m so … that’s what we do, right? And then look what you’ve done. So it’s exponential. It’s wonderful.

Chris Kresser:  And I have, since I’ve seen Allison a few times over the years, I go back to her for some touch-ups, including a few treatments recently. Maybe a couple years ago. And have introduced her to other folks that are friends of mine in the field, like Sara Gottfried, who I don’t think would mind saying has done some really amazing work with Allison. So it’s just, it feels timely that we’re having this conversation because of my renewed interest in this topic.

And I would love to hear a little bit more, or I know something about your story, but I’d love my listeners to hear a little bit more about how you came to this work. How you came to this realization that there’s more to gut health and overall health than just the substances that we put in our body.

Allison Post:  Yeah, well, my beginnings were when I was a very young person, actually, over 40 years ago. I was going into college, and I wanted to have birth control. So I was starting on that journey for myself, and I got an IUD which was very popular at the time. And unfortunately, the particular—it’s an intrauterine device, the particular device that was recommended to me by a doctor was probably on the market for about three or four years and unfortunately caused the death of 18 women and took the right of fertility and good health away from millions of women.

The company ended up claiming bankruptcy after many class-action lawsuits, and that was kind of my experience over about a year or a year and a half with being young, vital, very involved in the arts, a very happy person. And I started getting ill probably a couple of months after I got the device. And I would go to the doctor and say, “Wow, I don’t really feel well. What’s going on here?” And nobody ever connected that it was the device. It was always, “Well, you know, you’re a teenage girl and teenage girls get infections and here’s an antibiotic,” basically.

And being in the 70s, where at a time where the doctor was the authority, you didn’t really know much. I was kind of a nerd, so I knew about biology. So I was interested, and I was already looking into nutrition and how I could feel good in my body.

Chris Kresser:  But you can go on Google and search.

Allison Post:  Well, now, right. There was no Google.

Chris Kresser:  Or Facebook or Instagram. It’s that you didn’t have all that information at your fingertips.

Allison Post:  No, I had books, libraries, conversations, and connections. And nature actually was very informative to me. I knew how I felt when I was in it and that there was a difference. But unfortunately, the doctor was the be-all and end-all, and they knew everything. So it was like, “Oh, okay.” And after about a year of it, I was in college, I was celebrating the end of my first semester and went down to Florida.

I grew up in New York City, and I collapsed at the beach and writhing in pain, and I was taken to the emergency room. They kept me overnight, they gave me some painkillers, another round of antibiotics because they thought I had an infection. Didn’t know what was wrong with me. But at that moment, in the surroundings of dead silence, I think I was the only one, believe it or not, in the emergency room in this little room, I got really quiet. And I felt sure that this was the problem of the device. That this was about me not knowing about my body and putting all of my power into somebody giving me that information of what it could be, but that I knew in no uncertain terms that I had to get this thing out. And so I returned to New York, I went to my doctor, I had it taken out. He gave me more antibiotics and I went back to school.

And a couple of weeks later, writhing in the kind of pain that I can’t even describe, I was taken to the infirmary by my roommates and I stayed there for three days. And my temperature kept climbing. I was in a complete delirium. I don’t remember very much of it. And they took me to the hospital after I started to push past 104. And I wound up on IV antibiotics for almost five weeks and the doctor there had seen this before.

He said, “Oh, you had this,” I don’t know if I should mention the name of the device, but, “You had this IUD. I have seen this. You have pelvic inflammatory disease. I can’t even give you anything right now except for antibiotics to take down. You have body-wide inflammation, your organs are shutting down and you’re going to be here for a while.” And so there I was for four or five weeks just kind of going over and over, like “Wow, how could I have neglected my own body this way?” And that’s when I knew that there was a different path for me.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Allison Post:  I did recover, but I was basically told that I would never really recover. That I probably had an inordinate amount of scar tissue, that I would need further surgeries, and then they wished me luck, basically, and sent me away. And I returned to life and made up my schoolwork and got reengaged. But I just never felt well. I was an avid reader and very bright. I’d have to read sentences over and over again to really retain information that was so easy for me before. I lost a lot of my hair on my head. I had terrible digestion. I was bloated all the time. I just didn’t feel well. My metabolism just got shot. I must have gained 10 or 15 pounds. And so there I was, and they didn’t give me aftercare. There was no physical therapy, it was in the 70s.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Allison Post:  I had joint pains and these pains, and I was 19 years old. So I just knew that I had to figure it out. And I started to pursue alternative avenues. Like, I knew the doctors were not going to really be there for me unless they were there to save my life. And I was as grateful, I can tell you the gratitude was huge, because I was alive.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely. Conventional medicine excels at that, right?

Allison Post:  That’s what they’re there for. God bless them, and I wish they would know what their place was. Because they do it beautifully. But they don’t, there’s no support. There’s no preventative support and there’s no aftercare. And so I was in college. It was the 70s, and besides rock ‘n’ roll, there was yoga.

Chris Kresser:  And bell-bottoms.

Allison Post:  It was brand new like yoga. I was a tennis player, and here I said, “Well, I’m going to try yoga.” And from the very first class, because of the breathing and the breathing into the movement, I thought, “Oh, my God, I need to find out what this tradition is. I need to find out the history of this.” And I just started studying. And of course it branched out into Eastern arts and Chinese medicine and qigong and tai chi and acupuncture, which wasn’t even legal at the time. I started looking into every alternative. Colonics and more dense nutrition. I could hardly eat grain, so I had to find things that would really help my body function. And it just, even though I was in the theater and I was a singer and that seemed to be my journey, I’ve never lost that, and I still play guitar and sing for my husband.

But I knew, I started meeting people that were having the same problems, and there was so much going on growing up in Manhattan. The busyness of life, the lack of connection. The lack of nature, and the lack of a natural life. And people were getting sicker. So I changed my course and I just started studying kind of what, just like you did. You realized, like, “Wow, this is really important. This is something I can share.” And it’s something that can help change the very way we practice our life.

Chris Kresser:  That’s a fascinating story.

Allison Post:  Yeah, and I’m happy to say that I’m 63 and I feel really good.

The Gut–Mind Connection

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah. That’s amazing, and it’s so interesting how this works, how this process of discovery and rediscovery … Because, of course, the … In Eastern traditions like yoga, they’ve been aware of the connection between breathing and the nervous system and the gut for thousands of years. And I just read a book, not sure if you’ve seen this one. It came out a couple years ago. It’s called the Mind-Gut Connection, by Emeran Mayer.

Allison Post: I haven’t read it, but yeah.

Chris Kresser:  I mean, you probably don’t need to read it because it’s, like, and arguably I didn’t either because I’m very well aware of this. But I just like understanding things, the same thing from many different perspectives. So even if experientially and anecdotally and from other traditions like Eastern health traditions, I understand the gut–brain connection. I also enjoy understanding it from a modern Western scientific perspective.

Allison Post:  Absolutely.

Chris Kresser:  This book is about that. He’s a gastroenterologist, but he was one who broke the mold from the typical conventional approach. And he talks about the bidirectional connection of the gut and the brain, how when our brain and our nervous system are stressed, which we’re going to talk a lot about, affects our gut, and then how what’s happening in the gut changes the microbiome and chemicals produced there affect our brain. And back when you were exploring all this stuff, this wasn’t really known in Western science.

Since then we have the books like The Second Brain, which introduced this concept of the gut as a, it’s made up of 50 to 100 million nerve cells, and it’s got more immune cells than any other part of the body. It’s got more serotonin and melatonin than there is in the brain and pineal gland. And so we know all this now from a Western scientific perspective, but back then you were exploring this intuitively through your connection with nature, your own experience, and also through these Eastern traditions.

Allison Post:  I also have to say that The Second Brain has been out for decades.

Chris Kresser:  Yes, it has.

Allison Post:  That was one of my earliest studies, and it was amazing to me that, one of my favorite books, actually. Always in my resources, even when I put on Unwinding the Belly, because yes, the interesting thing is the information is known even when we look at it from an Eastern perspective. If you read between the lines, all that information is there about how the gut and the brain interact and how connection really heals. But he really was the first to put it down.

Chris Kresser: He was a pioneer, for sure.

Allison Post:  And it was just enlightening and helped me, like you, I’m the same. In fact, I think you did an interview with this man, with the mind–gut, right? Because I remember listening to an interview. Because I like to read all those books, too, over and over again. I mean, I know Sara’s coming out with a book now, the gut–brain.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

Allison Post:  Can’t wait. The more the merrier. And, yes, it was unknown, and people looked at some of the early pioneers in this as if we didn’t know what we were talking about.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Allison Post:  But the science was there. And so, yeah, I think it’s great that we are having more and more of this, and it’s like we did classic literature, right?

How We’re Constantly Triggering the Sympathetic Nervous System

Chris Kresser:  Yes, yes. So, let’s talk maybe more in layperson’s terms about how stress and the sympathetic nervous system, when that gets activated, the fight-or-flight response system, how that affects our gut and how that can manifest in chronic G.I. conditions like IBS or even inflammatory bowel disease, SIBO, bloating, all of which are really epidemic at this point.

Allison Post:  Yeah, and have become, like, the autoimmune circuit. I mean, it’s amazing how many people are suffering now. I mean, you know, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system are not easily understood because people look at them as separate systems. And they’re not. They’re one system and they work together in tandem, moment to moment, day after day. And they’re healthy.

It’s wonderful to have the sympathetic nervous response. It seems to get a little bit of a, not a good reputation. “Oh, you’re in sympathetic.” It’s, like, “Yeah, I’m joyful. I’m playing sports. I’m in my life.” But if it becomes something that becomes a system of high alert and never being able to tone down and shut off, then we’re going into a hypervigilant state. And we have no time when we have a lion on our tail or when we’re being chased, or when there’s something we have to stay awake for. We have no time to rest. We have no time to digest. And the system knows how to function to protect us. It’s a protective thing. It’s like, “Uh oh, let’s speed up the heart rate, let’s make sure we’re not digesting.”

Chris Kresser:  Let’s even evacuate the contents of the intestine so that we don’t have to waste energy on digesting them, which leads to the diarrhea response that some people have to stress.

Allison Post:  Everything is kind of like heightened, except there’s no failsafe there. There’s nothing, there’s no partnering. And then day after day after day, week after week, year after year, we find substances outside of ourselves to encourage this state because we think we need to stay in it. We get addicted to it, and certainly the culture has invited us to do that between the devices and the red alerts and everything else we’re experiencing.

Chris Kresser:  The red alert, when someone has liked your Instagram posting?

Allison Post:  Exactly.

Chris Kresser:  Crucial notification that you have to have right now.

Allison Post:  Right. Otherwise, you don’t even have an ego left. It’s amazing what’s happening with that. And it’s happening, as you know, I work with lots of children, it’s happening at all ages.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

Allison Post:  People are … I mean, when I was growing up, we had an hour recess after a short lunch. We were always playing. There was really an orchestrated way to get both of those, all the systems working. And now it’s always, you take your child from one state to the next. There’s no rest. There’s no nap time. There used to be nap time, even in kindergarten. We don’t have that anymore, and people are not taking that for themselves. I have to admit I just got my first iPhone last week.

Chris Kresser:  I don’t know whether to say congratulations or that’s terrible.

Allison Post:  Well, you have to get on Amtrak now with it, so it has, definitely technology is a beautiful thing and it can really support us. But it can really harm us. And our culture has really taken us away from this beautiful place of every hour every day, these moments of watching the sunrise, which is one of my favorite things to do every morning. Just to be able to rest, digest and let that part of your nervous system, which is supporting you to have normal bowel movements, to have normal functioning, to be able to connect to the person that’s sitting across from you. To have this conversation. To listen, listen both within yourself and within your surroundings, to actually know what’s appropriate so that your nervous system can go between being joyful and feeling the real emotions that support you, whether it’s sadness or just peace and quiet. And then the nervous system is functioning accordingly.

No matter what, you’re still making good choices as a result as well. Like, you know what to eat, you know what services you. You know if something doesn’t feel good or if that person triggers you. Or if you haven’t had enough time on the trail today and you need to get back tomorrow longer. You just know how to make good choices because your nervous system is supporting you. It’s nine times your gut was talking to your brain. One time your brain is talking to your gut.

Chris Kresser:  Right, right, and this is in our language.

Allison Post:  Absolutely.

Chris Kresser:  “Got a gut feeling,” all these sayings that, where at least in our vernacular, we understand this connection. It took science a while to catch up to the understanding, but people intuitively know “butterflies in my stomach,” those kinds of nervous digestive symptoms that people might have before they go up on stage and do a public talk. They might have to run to the bathroom or something like that. It’s not like this is new. Most people have had a direct experience of the gut–brain connection.

But I think what is often not clear to people is how this gets activated day to day with smaller and less obvious influences. So, for example, I just wrote an email. I haven’t sent it out yet. But on how screens and technology activate the sympathetic nervous system, like fight or flight. And there’s a couple studies. There’s one 2017 study that showed that kids who use smartphones in the evening experienced an increase in heart rate and a decrease in autonomic nervous system activity, both of which are, of course, evidence of an activated fight-or-flight response. And then another 2014 study that found that sending an email and waiting for the response caused an activation of the sympathetic nervous system. So how many of us are just doing that all day?

Allison Post:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  And what does that mean for our nervous system and our gut that we’re in this constant state of sympathetic arousal?

Allison Post:  Yes, and you can actually feel that in the culture at large at this point. Because when you’re in that response, you’re waiting. But when you’re in conversation with somebody, I think because you’re so heightened, you’re second-guessing even what they’re going to say next. You’re not really listening. So certainly you can’t hear yourself. Because you’re in your cognitive brain, which isn’t really functioning from your internal environment.

So it’s really creating global problems for all of us when we can’t make those choices. And I feel like sometimes we’re mutating into a different creature altogether, actually. Because it is … that’s when people walk into my office that they cannot relax, they can’t fall asleep. They can’t get off their computer because their work is so tied into it. The whole world has tied you into these devices, and they don’t know how to make time away from it because it does become an addiction on so many levels.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely. And we’re … this is actually the topic of my talk at Paleo f(x) this year, screen addiction and how it’s affecting our health and our well-being and even our very humanity, really. And what steps we can take to address it. Because as you said, so many people, including myself, use these screens for work.

Personally, I don’t even use social media. I don’t use screens other than looking at maps and making restaurant reservations and researching. I don’t really use screens any other way than for work. But I depend on them for work. And so I’ve really had to explore, and this is still very much a work in progress, how can I change the way that I, my nervous system response while I’m using these screens? Because something I’ve noticed is that if I, with the screen and the kind of work that you do on a screen, there’s no natural limit to how fast and frantically you can do things. Like, if you imagine, I can switch back and forth between applications within a millisecond, using, like, a keyboard shortcut.

So I can go from one thing to the next thing to the next thing to the next thing. If I were to act that out physically, what that would look like, going from one …? I’d be running around the office, opening a drawer, opening a file cabinet, putting this away, putting that away.

Allison Post:  Yeah, and on a certain level that’s what your nervous system is doing.

Chris Kresser:  Exactly, exactly. It would be impossible to sustain that physically. It would be so obvious that if you were doing that physically you couldn’t sustain it. But because there isn’t that physical limitation, it’s possible to just do that all day every day on a screen. And I think I’m not alone in doing that on the screen. And so it just really, it taxes and chronically activates and taxes the sympathetic nervous system, and then that can have so many effects. Not just on the gut of course, but virtually every respect of health. Because the nervous system controls everything, right?

Allison Post:  Right. But there are ways that we can work with that.

The Importance of Unwinding—and Activating a Parasympathetic State

Chris Kresser:  Yes, so let’s talk about unwinding. Because I referred to that and this is core to what you do. So I want to have time to really dive into this.

Allison Post:  Yeah, I would like to segue right from where you’re coming from with the screen though, because I work with people online. I don’t only work with them in person in my office. Because people in Colombia and England and Singapore work with me. And what we’re able to do is use the screen to make a different type of connection. I can actually teach, sometimes I have people laying down. And so a lot of it can be through audio. But I teach them how to be with the screen, to connect with themselves, to not lose the pace of what’s actually going on in their body. To feel their surroundings. They do have a skin body. They have an electromagnetic field that is the space that they’re in.

And if they can start to connect to their heartbeat, to their breath and to the space around them, then the way they’re relating to the device or the way they’re talking to somebody, even through email … I know it sounds a little bizarre, but I quite enjoy, I’ve always enjoyed writing letters anyway. But I kind of feel myself in my body, in my breath, while I’m performing my functions. I can’t do, can’t jump from thing to thing. I actually don’t allow myself to do it. But what I find is that if we stay slowed down—and I don’t mean asleep or in a coma—but if we stay in a healthy place in our nervous system, with our breath, with our feet on the ground, we actually end up being able to create more. More better.

And we’re able to work longer and come up with more creative ideas, because we’re coming from our breath and from our internal environment, from our circulation, which is feeding this beautiful brain. So we’re not triggered into responses, or we’re not rushed into finishing a project. We’ve engaged both parts of our nervous system. Again, it’s like we’ve adapted to going, “Oh, well, I’ll just stay with my sympathetic response while I’m working. And then I’ll go on a 10-day retreat and I’ll unwind from that.” Or, “I’ll take a walk after work. Or maybe I’ll sit in zazen for 20 minutes.” I think zazen is to be an all-day every minute.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah, I mean, it’s like not going to be very effective. It’s like a drop in the ocean if you have 10 minutes or 20 minutes a day where you’re engaged in the parasympathetic response and then the remaining time, including during sleep in a lot of cases, our sympathetic nervous system is activated.

So, yeah, that’s a really important segue because of how pervasive technology and screens are in most of our lives now at this point. I mean, there are some occupations like forest ranger, something like that. But even people like yourself who are body workers have to use screens. It’s the way that you communicate with the world, and we put ourselves out there, and so there’s no avoiding it for most of us. And it’s important, so important to learn how to create a healthier and more sustainable relationship with it.

Allison Post:  Yes, agreed. And then there’s what you do the other times. How you do take the time, which I know you do, to be with yourself, to actually feel yourself on a deeper level that is not, with the least amount of effort. I always like to kind of underline that. Because when people start to learn breathing practices, they want to become warriors. It’s kind of like, “I’m going to learn how to use this mechanism and I’m going to push into it.” I don’t think that really is helpful. The musculature of it and understanding the mechanism is important as a starting place. But what we really want to do again is get out of the sympathetic doing, like, “Oh, I’m breathing this way and I’m counting to 10.”

It’s like, first, really, what unwinding is about is finding out what’s going on in there. It might not feel very pretty and glamorous to begin with because you might find all these places, like you mentioned at the beginning, of knots and tangles. Of one side of your rib cage being able to expand and the other side not. Of a lump in your throat if you even try to breathe. Of emotions coming up and they may not be very comfortable. Or of pain that evidences itself because you’ve slowed down enough to feel what’s really going on in there.

So the first invitation is not just sitting and following and watching things and kind of coming back to your breath, but going inside and noticing where those patterns are. I think it was so perfect how you put it, Chris. You didn’t even know you had those knots and tangles.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Allison Post:  And if we can be brought safely to a place, which is why it’s so good to either work with a practitioner or have some kind of audiovisual support to know that there’s company, there’s something listening, there’s something guiding, so that we feel safe. We have a container and an understanding of how to allow ourselves to start to feel ourselves.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, and that’s such a such an important point I think because it’s very … humans are very adaptable, and that’s a double-edged sword. Because it means that we’re resilient and we can adapt to really challenging circumstances, but it also means that we can adapt to a state of being that is not at all conducive to health. And that we just become used to it and it becomes the new normal for us. And we’re not even aware of how, that our experience is affecting our body.

Allison Post:  Yes, agreed totally.

Methods You Can Use to Unwind and Improve Your Gut Health

Chris Kresser:  So you have the gut, just speaking of what people can do. Because we know not everyone will be able to find a practitioner that does this kind of work. Let’s talk a little bit about that. In my experience, it’s not so much about the modality as it is about the practitioner. But having said that, what are some of the modalities that approach things in this way? That are working with the nervous system and addressing the gut–brain axis, starting with the ones that you have embraced in your work?

Allison Post:  Yeah, I mean, certainly chi nei tsang and visceral manipulation is one of them. And craniosacral therapy and all forms of craniosacral therapy. There’s so many different lineages from the biomechanical model through what’s called the biodynamic model, which really works mostly with the parasympathetic response in allowing the body to be relieved of stress and learn how to do that. It works really with the parasympathetic.

Chris Kresser:  Can you say a little more about chi nei tsang for people that are not familiar?

Allison Post:  Chi nei tsang is a modality that’s been around for just eons. I mean, it’s from Chinese medicine, because they always did hands-on work, not only with needles for acupuncture, but with a visceral touch that allowed people to start feeling into their organs, getting their organs to relax, getting the fascia that is around the organs, which is really what you’re working on. And the fascia, of course, is carrying your nervous system and carrying your circulation.

So the messages that are moving through your body are coming from your gut and kind of from that original place you were connected to your mama, your bellybutton. And what’s underneath it is where you assimilate your nutrients. So it teaches the body how to breathe, how to relax. And with my work, I’ve just taken it even further into the relaxation mode. Not so much into the breathing with effort, but into education of really slowing down and feeling what’s underneath your fingers.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I agree on the breathing with effort, because I think it was Einstein that said, “If you try to solve the problem with the same mindset that created it, it’s not going to work very well.” So if you’re using effortful breathing to try to resolve a nervous system that is suffering from too much effort, then that may not work very well.

Allison Post:  Yeah, it might be homeopathic for about five minutes. But then we just need to slow it all down. I do think there’s a lot of meditation. Things like yoga nidra, for instance, that can help, the embodiment practices. I know that’s a word that’s overused a lot. But embodiment practices, how are we actually going to take time and be guided? Because prosody, Stephen Porges talks a lot about that in his work with the vagus nerve, listening to somebody’s voice that’s friendly and kind is extremely helpful and supportive in slowing down your nervous system.

So that’s why a lot of these apps now, meditation apps, where people are guiding you so that you can be supported and hopefully learn so that you can do it on your own. Because that’s really how we come into the world. We are co-regulating with mama, with family dynamics, in order to self-regulate as we grow. When I work with people, that’s one of the most important things I try to learn about them. I want to know where they came from. I want to know what their in utero experience was. What was mama doing in her life? What was her nutrition and her emotional life? What was happening there? What was it like during the birth experience? I work with so many children who can’t move forward in their life because they had seizure disorders at birth or things went wrong. They had spinal taps because there was a fever. Or they were taken away from mama because she was sick and they didn’t get the bonding.

Allison’s Online Course to Help You Improve Your Gut Wellness

So these inform the nervous system, and it doesn’t grow exactly the way we’re set up to. We have an inherent health system. So we need the co-regulation in order to self-regulate. And so many people, Chris, I mean, I’ve been working for over 30 years with the most beautiful people. I love people. But so many people, it’s always shocking to me, suffered such trauma at birth, in their development, in their schooling, in the bullying and in abuse that there was no co-regulation. So we bring this in, whether it’s by audio, whether it’s the kind of support that people can find no matter where they are. And actually, Stephen, my husband and I, who is my partner in crime, we actually made an online program that will be coming out in March that addresses both the ability and availability to watch something and learn because we’re such visual creatures.

But then to have a slower audio once you learn to work. Do these techniques on your belly so that you can listen and be guided after you’ve learned and watched? You’re never alone. There’s somebody there with you. And in the program, there will also be live calls with me and the Facebook page to answer questions and worksheets to understand what you can do for your gut. Like the book that I mentioned, a gut action plan. How can we be our own doctor and empower ourselves so that when we go to the doctor, we know who we are? We’re not giving ourselves over to what they think. We understand our blood test. Just like you educate people. We need to know and then we can collaborate with our practitioners. It is about collaboration and connection, after all.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely. And I’m so happy to hear that you’re making this available because it’s been … What’s a challenge for me with some of the practitioners that I’ve worked with, like yourself, who are so gifted and skilled and have been such a big part of my healing journey, it’s hard for me. I can’t really recommend that to somebody else unless they happen to live, like a colleague, Sara Gottfried, or a patient who’s local here. But I have a global audience, and so how, there’s been some challenge.

Fortunately, there are a lot more resources now like your book. And now your new online course where people who are not necessarily able to work, find someone who uses these modalities and has this kind of perspective in their local community, they can get your book, The Gut Wellness Guide or the course that is going to be coming out. Because it’s so, I’ve just come to believe it’s so critical for most people, especially people who are dealing with chronic gut conditions. I have so many patients, and this has kind of has been my journey over the past few years with chronic G.I. issues that don’t really respond even to Functional Medicine. So let’s say they come into the office. We test them, they’re positive for SIBO and maybe parasites and some other stuff, and then we do the Functional Medicine treatment protocols. We change their diet. We give them herbs or even sometimes medications to deal with those problems.

And then in this kind of hypothetical patient, one of two things happens. They either, the lab tests improve and become normal, but they still are symptomatic. Or maybe they’re still symptomatic and the labs didn’t improve. And then we might go do another treatment and still the same thing. They don’t improve and the labs don’t improve. It’s almost like there is, I began to feel like there was some kind of shield, it was preventing the treatments from working. Or someone does get better temporarily. This is another possibility. So they get better for a few weeks, and then slowly or even quickly the symptoms start to return. And so I started to … it didn’t make sense to me that the solution in those cases is just to keep doing the same thing over and over—the definition of insanity, as we know. And that there must be something else going on in these cases where—and I came to believe that in many of these cases—that something else is nervous system dysregulation.

Allison Post:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  Overly chronically activated sympathetic response and/or a kind of imprinted, some kind of trauma that happened in the past, and that trauma could’ve been emotional or psychological, but it could’ve been microbial like an infection, like in your case. Or it could’ve been chemical, like an exposure to a toxin, or it could’ve been physical, like a car accident. And we know with, because of neuroplasticity, that those traumas can basically become imprinted.

Neurons that fire together wire together, and that can create, I think, a habitual kind of malfunction in the gut that cannot be only addressed with supplements and medications and diet.

Allison Post:  Agreed 100 percent. And that’s what I’ve been, I mean, I wish I could have videotaped 33 years of practice of clinical trials. When people talk about clinical trials, like, you see that over and over again. And we need the functional community. We need the herbs, we need the testing. But we also need a part of, just like Chinese medicine was so beautiful at, of the qigong, of the movement, the breath, the slowing down of the nervous system in order for this stuff to stick.

Because the nervous system still believes that there is an emergency. If the triggers that you even get involved in relationships that are reminiscent of the traumas, because sometimes that’s what makes people feel safe. I mean, it’s very complicated, the way we work emotionally. And then we’re just on this track for a lifetime of doctor to doctor, practitioner to practitioner. Usually when people get to me, they’ve run the gamut. Very often it’s like—

Chris Kresser:  Both of us.

Allison Post:  Right, exactly. We’re the last hope. And luckily, we had our own experiences where we knew that if we didn’t get this happening for ourselves, if we didn’t slow down our nervous system, if we didn’t learn about ourselves and have meditation practices, what worked for us. It’s personal, just like the title of your book, The Personal Paleo Code. It’s not about the Paleo diet, it’s about taking things that can really work and then seeing it and feeling it through the lens of who you are. What your background has been and then learning how to start making the communications happen. So, there are so many techniques people can learn in order to slow down their system, and it takes time.

Chris Kresser:  Yes. It takes time and it takes attention, and you’re also fighting against the grain. Maybe fighting is not the right metaphor there for the reason we said earlier, but it’s important to me just personally in my own experience. And also, I like to remind my patients, the dominant paradigm is working in the other direction.

So, there are constant reminders throughout the day, or triggers of the sympathetic response throughout the day. And if you just kind of go with the flow, if you install an app and just when it pops up and says “allow notifications” and you just click “allow,” you’ll end up being notified thousands of times a day, hundreds of times a day perhaps. And that’s going to, every time that happens it triggers the sympathetic nervous system. So you have to … this is totally possible, and it can have profound effects even in a short time. And you have to be very intentional and vigilant, I think.

Allison Post:  Yeah. Again, the choice of words, the vigilance, right?

Chris Kresser:  Right, not vigilant.

Allison Post:  No, I agree. I mean, because they’re, on some level that’s what we do, have to do it. We have to have the willingness. And most people that have been taken to the end of the road and don’t ever feel well, they’re tired, but they do have the willingness. Those are the people that seem to grasp that opportunity finally and realize that they just have to be awake. They have to be on notice. That was part of our journey, certainly. I started to feel in every instance, what was working and what wasn’t, and without reactivity.

Just like, “Oh, this is happening right now, and that’s not really going to support me. I’m going to take a deep breath. That’s going to take me about 10 seconds. I’m going to slow down and then I’m not going to take that on.” These are also simple skills that we can learn so that we can hit the “don’t allow.” “No I’m not going there. That doesn’t really serve me. I’m going to go towards what does serve me.” And we build that one person at a time and one community at a time. And I believe we’re really doing that. I see it happening.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely. Allison, it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you. Where can people find more about your work, your book, and this upcoming online course?

Allison Post:  They can go to my website, AllisonPost.com. And my book is everywhere, whether you shop online or in bookstores. I welcome you. It’s a very sweet, accessible book. But yeah, and certainly what you’re doing.

Chris Kresser:  We’re on the same team, that’s for sure.

Allison Post:  We’ve always been on the same team. And it’s my pleasure to know you.

Chris Kresser:  It’s my pleasure as well, and thank you for all the work that you’re doing. It’s such, I feel like more than ever—it’s always been important—but more than ever in today’s age, it’s just increasingly relevant and essential for all of us to tune into this. So thank you, and thanks, everybody, for listening. Send in your questions, ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll talk to you soon.

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