You might get them before an exam, interview, date, oral presentation or before a debut on stage. Maybe you feel them when you speak to someone cute, or when you’re in line to go on a rollercoaster. Regardless of what triggers them, the fluttery sensation of butterflies in the stomach is a familiar one to most of us.
Have you ever wondered what exactly goes on inside you to give that “butterfly in the stomach” feeling?
What causes butterflies in the stomach?
The answer is not butterflies fluttering around in your gut, nor even the slightly more plausible trampolining gut bacteria or partying parasites. The causes behind the butterflies in your stomach are changes in muscle contractions around the gut. Let me explain:
There is one thing in common to all the vast number of possible triggers for butterflies: stress. Whether it’s the scary stress of an exam, interview or presentation, or whether it’s the excited, positive stress of talking to someone you like, the excitement of a first kiss, or the thrill of riding on a rollercoaster, it is nonetheless stress, and the body reacts to both positive and negative stress in very similar ways.
When we’re stressed, the stressed thoughts trigger certain parts of the brain. If you want to get technical, feel free to read the bit in brackets, otherwise skip ahead! (The part of the brain which is stimulated is called the hippocampus, and this sends a signal to the hypothalamus hormone gland. In response, the hypothalamus releases certain hormones like CRH which communicate with another hormone gland called the pituitary. The pituitary then releases other hormones like ACTH which travel in the blood to the kidney where they send a signal to the adrenal glands telling the adrenals to make stress hormones. There is also another means of communication of the brain to the adrenals via the sympathetic nervous). In short, stress that is picked up by the brain triggers the release of the stress hormones in the body. Three main adrenal hormones are responsible for the stress response:
- Adrenaline (aka epinephrine)
- Noradrenaline (aka norepinephrine)
These hormones have several effects on the body, and all these effects have evolved to increase chances of survival when caught in a life-threatening, stressful situation. These exact same mechanisms are fired off even in non-life-threatening situations because, as already mentioned, the body cannot differentiate between the different types of stress.
One of the actions the body takes to help you get away is to divert the blood away from the gut’s intestinal muscles and towards organs involved in “fight or flight”, like to your running-muscles. When your priority is to run away from tigers, lions and bears, digesting your food properly becomes a lower concern than getting your legs moving quickly. The way that blood is diverted away from the intestines is that the blood vessels in the intestines contract to allow less blood to flow here. Although the mechanism is not entirely clear, it seems that the muscle contraction of the blood vessels around the gut is linked to the sensation of butterflies in the stomach.
This diversion of the body’s resources away from the gut, incidentally, may also having something to do with why appetite is often lost in times of stress.
It may also be that the intestinal muscles themselves are affected by stress because the muscles in the walls of the intestines are smooth muscle, just like the muscles that are behind the blood vessel constriction. One of the responses of the body to extreme stress is that in order to help you run faster from danger, the body tries to make you lighter by triggering the release of bowel and bladder contents. This is why when people are stressed, nervous or scared, they feel they need to go to the bathroom more often. It also somewhat explains the phrases “scared s**tless”, “bricking it” and being “so scared I almost wet myself”. Stress can be quite the laxative! This stress response is also why people can get nervous diarrhoea and IBS-like symptoms when stressed. It may be that a mild version of this muscle contraction in the gut also contributes towards the sensation of butterflies in the stomach.
There may also be non-stress hormones involved
There is another hormone in the body that is normally responsible for keeping the bowel moving regularly, and that is the happiness hormone, serotonin. The gut is known to be the main secretor of serotonin, and when stressed, serotonin levels are affected. This is likely to have an effect on the contractility of the intestinal muscles, which may contribute to the “butterflies in the stomach” effect.
Butterflies in the stomach do NOT necessarily mean you’re in love
A common misconception is that feeling that you’ve got butterflies in your stomach when you speak to someone or when you see someone looking at you, it must mean you like them. This isn’t necessarily the case. All that the butterflies mean is that you’re excited by the exchange.
Can you get rid of butterflies in the stomach?
You might enjoy the feeling of butterflies and not even think about wanting to get rid of them, but for some with an anxious disposition, constant flip-flopping tummies can be a nuisance. So is there a way to decrease the butterflies?
Only if you can get rid of your tendency to get stressed or excited. Butterflies can be reduced however with the application of stress-coping tricks and tips. Some of these include:
- Experience: The more you do something, the more familiar it becomes and the less stress-inducing you may find it. With time, it will stop triggering butterflies as your body stops perceiving the event as stressful.
- Positive self-talk: Positive affirmations to tell yourself everything will be ok, and affirming all the positive skills you have to deal with a stressful situation can be helpful. Also taking a mental note that the worst that can happen isn’t so bad and that things will work out no matter what happens, can help attenuate stress.
- Deep breathing: Taking slow, deep breaths right from your belly can be helpful in reducing butterflies because it helps calm you down.
- Positive visualizations: Imagining the stressful event and visualizing it all working out perfectly can be helpful in reducing tension and butterflies. Visualize the “best case” situation in your mind.
- Bach flower remedies: Certain Bach flowers can help with acute stress. Rescue Remedy is the main one used for immediate stress relief, whilst other remedies are more targeted, like Mimulus for known fears, Aspen for fear of the unknown, and Star of Bethlehem for shock. For acute problems you can drop two drops of the remedy into a glass or bottle of water, shake, and sip it as needed.
- Nutritional Relaxants: The greatest nutritonal relaxant is Magnesium and it is often nicknamed “nature’s tranquilizer”. If you have a generally nervous disposition and are prone to lots of butterflies, magnesium may be helpful because it helps with muscle relaxation. Taking 400-600mg magnesium a day can be useful (which is 2-3 tablets of the magnesium citrate product I’ve linked to). Vitamin C and Vitamin B5 also particularly support the adrenals and can therefore be useful for people prone to feeling anxious.
- Essential oil relaxants: I am a big fan of Young Living essential oils because their effects can be immediate and powerful. Oils like Valor, Peace & Calming, Joy and Harmony can be helpful in times of stress.
- Herbal relaxants: There are some herbal remedies which can help people with generally nervous dispositions. These include skullcap, valerian, passionflower, ashwaganda (aka withania) and rhodiola, although I’d recommend seeing a trained Herbalist or Naturopath before taking these.
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