Craniosacral therapy and Chinese medicine for a healthy happy gut

At the end of June this year I went to London to attend a post graduate craniosacral therapy seminar called ‘Gut Feeling’ with Viola Sampson. I was keen to learn more about the microbiome, possibly the most ‘overlooked organ’ of the body, and understand better how craniosacral therapy might be of help to develop gut health.

I learned that we cannot live without the millions of micro organisms that inhabit our bodies where they are our interface with the world – how we meet it – covering our skin and living inside our digestive system. So many illnesses are associated with a disrupted microbiome. These include: digestive disorders, immune disorders, respiratory illnesses, skin conditions, cancer, heart disease, gynaecological problems, and many mental health issues.

Our microbiome is totally unique – just like a fingerprint, it is completely individual. The first three years of life are vitally important for its development and this is when it is laid down. Breast milk can assist the development of a healthy microbiome and may have long lasting health benefits. As someone who was not able to be breastfed, and was very ill in infancy, I found this of great interest. Fortunately I have recovered well and feel my guts are quite happy – on the whole.

When our bacteria are in harmony with us this is called Eubiosis, whilst disharmony is Dysbiosis. A healthy microbiome can result in the production of essential neurotransmitters such as seratonin and dopamine, which are so much associated with mood and feelings, whilst dysbiosis is associated with bacterial overgrowth, bloating, pain, flatulence, obesity, hormonal and mood imbalances and lowered immunity.

Having a healthy microbiome is of utmost importance to our health and well being.

So how can craniosacral therapy help?

It may not be immediately obvious why craniosacral therapy can support a person’s gut health.  The very name craniosacral therapy means it is associated with the head and sacrum. It is a bit of a misnomer really. But it is an evolving discipline, originating from osteopathy, and as it evolves further it is much concerned with gut health and supporting the person’s parasympathetic responses. For anyone who has received a treatment they will know it is very much a whole body therapy where a practitioner helps to calm a person’s nervous system through gentle respectful negotiated contact. In this context, our working on the Vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve, is often part of the treatment process – whatever the reasons for coming to therapy. This nerve is so fundamental to our functioning, travelling all over our digestive system and also going to the heart and the ‘social engagement system’, the organs of sense and communication. This nerve has so many receptor cells it is no wonder the gut is called ‘the second brain’. It controls the parasympathetic response, which puts a person into ‘rest and digest’ mode, moving them out of stress and any inflammatory responses are calmed.

As craniosacral therapists we are taught about ‘Polyvagal Theory’ – this theory was develeoped by one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, Prof Stephen Porges, in the US ‘decade of the brain’, after the discovery was made about all mammals having a myelinated part of the vagus nerve, which other species do not have. This means our first response to stress, if we are healthy, is to seek connection with others – known as the ‘social engagement response’. If we are stressed or knocked off balance this response can be compromised and we can become isolated, fearful, intolerant, irritable. In extreme situations we shut down completely – this is known as the ‘freeze’ response. Porges’ work with neonates and premature babies led him to develop the theory. In very young infants, especially if they are premature, they have no social engagement response – of course they cannot run or cause a threat – and they can literally die of shock to the heart. It was, I learned at a seminar/workshop entitled ‘the Healing Power of Safety’, with Professor Porges, this particular observation about neonatal death, that was key to the development of Polyvagal Theory.

As craniosacral therapists we work through the relational field to deeply connect with a person’s health and resources – and alleviate stress. Through using special ‘listening positions’ (we listen with our hands in craniosacral therapy), we are able to sensitively connect to the microbiome in the large and small intestines. The small intestines are particularly interesting in terms of their embrionic development – coming right out of the body into the umbilical cord in the very early stages of pregnancy – before twelve weeks. Working with the small intestine one is able to connect with just how sensitive this area can be to touch – and ‘off the body work’ may be needed to support this part of the digestive tract. Working as a practitioner it is possible to sense a healthy gut – to feel slippery flowing movements and a ‘bacterial buzz’, which feels fizzy, but in a different way to the buzz of nervous system agitation.

After a session a client may feel a sense of peace and lightness. The thoughts and worries we came in with may vanish. There is a sense of ease and flow. I have really enjoyed using the techniques I learned on Viola’s informative seminar – and so have my clients, many of whom suffer with IBS, mood problems, anxiety, and homonal imbalances.

How can Chinese medicine help?

I have been working with acupuncture for almost thirty years now and it is such a privilege to have this understanding of the body, mind and spirit. I love working with the Toyohari approach, and gently supporting a person’s meridian system – and as a Five Element acupuncturist I may use one or two key points to try to put the client into connection with their deepest resources and to connect with their essence/path or Tao. The wisdom and knowledge of the Chinese never ceases to amaze me. The point names on the meridians show such a wonderful sense of connection between the mind and the body – and how we process food, or thoughts, or feelings – why would this not all be connected? Working with clients can be such a great way to help them make transitions in life. These are times when there is a lot to ‘process’.

With herbs I work with Kanpo – this is a Japanese approach. From a herbalist’s perspective there is no point in prescribing herbs if they cannot be digested – so this is where a Kanpo practitioner starts – sometimes with a brief course of herbs to support healthy digestion. Sometimes herbal treatments for very serious illness are actually rather basic and simple digestive formulae. ‘Ginseng and Ginger Combination, a formula that aids digestive function,  can, for example, work so well if used at the right time. I remember one case of a young girl with Crohn’s – when taking this formula was such a help, and her abdomen, which was often bloated and tight, would deflate and relax after a spoonful of herbs – to the amazement of us both.

I am a great believer in returning to the basics when things are out of balance, and in gentle approaches that augment the body’s own natural healing responses.

My therapies are great to use alongside dietary and nutritional approaches too – working in different ways to restore and optimise your health and wellbeing. I am not qualified in these approaches and generally steer away from offering advice in this area as it is such a minefield of conflicting information. I recommend other professionals and am more than happy to work with them as part of a healing team that you put together for yourself, which may include conventional medicine too. It certainly doesn’t have to be either/or, and it is conventional medicine that has brought so much understanding of the microbiome – a very exciting field of research and knowledge.

Sylvia Schroer PhD Health Sciences