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Digestive Disorders and the Brain-Gut Connection


Holistic Practitioner Spotlight with Dr. Aaron Mills, Acupuncturist and Herbalist

We are speaking with Dr. Aaron Mills, DACM, LAC, Dip. OM, on the relationship between what’s going on in the brain and how it effects digestive and overall health and wellbeing.

Tell Us a Story About a Patient Who Suffered from Digestive Problems  and How You Helped With Her Life

I have specialty in treating brain-gut disorders. In this instance, a 33 year old female, we will call Amy, presented with chronic constipation. She experienced this condition most of her life which had become more pronounced after teenage Anorexia Nervosa.

Amy had secondary complaints of anxiety, acid reflux after eating, and difficulty staying asleep. It should be noted that she also had a history of birth control, and anti-depressants.

Amy had heard about my practice from a friend. While Amy had behaviorally controlled her condition, she was still experiencing some of the related mental and physical symptoms.

When Amy presented to my office, she was no longer taking any medications but was now on an herbal blend for the constipation. She had advanced knowledge of basic nutrition as it related to her condition and had incorporated lifestyle changes that included practicing yoga, and some meditative practices. She stated that she had tried ear acupuncture and found it relaxing. Currently, Amy was not experiencing any profound anxiety.

What had your patient tried before seeking you out?

Amy had previously been under the care of a psychologist and was currently under the care of her health plan primary care physician. Her blood pressure was normal and her height, weight, and BMI (Body Mass Index) were all within normal range.

Amy indicated that she tried a lot of approaches with her doctors and although she had some success with symptomatic treatment, the brain-gut connection was not addressed. She was really against depending on the prescribed psychotropic medications and over-the-counter laxatives.

How did you arrive at your course of treatment?

I utilized Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), tongue and pulse diagnosis, and Functional Lab Analysis. Amy’s TCM diagnostic pattern suggested digestive issues related to the compromised ability to both 1) digest and 2) eliminate foods. It also pointed to emotional taxation indicating anxiety/depression episodes. Her labs indicated lowered cortisol, reactive hypo-glycemia, and elevated hsCRP (C-Reactive Protein), a biomarker which would indicate some systemic inflammation as well.

I was aware of the Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenal axis (HPA) being identified as an etiological factor in Anorexia Nervosa. Here are some important facts of the brain-gut connection as it related to Amy’s condition.

  • The HPA interacts with the limbic system, specifically the insular and prefrontal cortices. This is responsible for:
    • Sensations of unpleasant abdominal distention
    • Disgust of smells
    • Regulating sympathetic and parasympathetic functions.
  • Dietary restriction and stressful life events can induce over-activation of the HPA. The impacts are:
    • Activating the insular lobe leading to decreases appetite, and stimulation of the anterior pituitary gland resulting in increased corticotrophin-relaxing hormone (CRH), influencing levels of cortisol in the bloodstream
    • Over time this will cause anxiety, blood sugar dysregulation, and irregular cardio system function.

What modalities or therapies did you implement and what was the outcome of the services you provided?

Over the course of 4 months, I treated Amy according to the indicated lab values determined through her functional blood chemistry using acupuncture, medicinal herbs, dietary therapy, and vitamins/supplements. Together, these helped to normalize the brain-gut connection. After the first few weeks of not taking any drugs/herbs/supplements she was beginning to have daily bowel elimination approximately 3-4 days per week, and her insomnia had decreased.

Before our treatment, Amy had indicated that she was unable to have bowel movements without using the herbal product she had been taking. After the first two months of treatment she had resumed her diet and reported daily bowel movements.

She also reported that she had been sleeping through the nights regularly. Although still some acid reflux, it was only after eating greasy foods.

Upon retest, her values were normalizing in functional ranges. Amy continued the treatment plan with additional biliary supplementation for the acid reflux she was experiencing. After she completed her treatment protocol and her lab values were in functional ranges, she reported daily bowel movements, improved sleep, and less anxiety – indicators of  her improved brain-gut connection.

Amy, who was committed to her health plan, was incredibly pleased with the treatment outcomes. She has remained in my practice to continue with pre-natal systemic support throughout her pregnancy and post-partum care. I too was exceptionally happy with the results where Amy admitted to now getting all she wanted out of her life.

Why and When Did You Choose the Holistic Path?

I have previous training and education in psychology and had been working on a doctorate in neuropsychology. However, while I found the studies and research I was involved in fascinating, I believed that there were more integral approaches being offered through natural medical systems.

Based upon my understanding of neuroscience and its regulatory role of somatic systems, Acupuncture was a fascinating modality to train in. The mind-body approach, individualized care, and treating root causes of illness have been long established in Traditional Chinese Medicine, as well as the obvious role of Chinese herbal substances, both mineral and photochemical, and their medicinal value. It was with this perspective that I chose to pursue and complete Masters and Doctorate degrees – concentrating on Acupuncture, Biomedicine, Herbal Medicine, and Oriental Medical Theory.

What Lessons Have Your Work and Personal Experiences Taught You?

I have always enjoyed working with the people that I treat. I gravitated towards East Asian Medicine because of the ability to provide comprehensive and patient centered care.

I had worked with patients previously who complained about their doctors not listening to them and always being rushed, which made them feel marginalized. As a researcher in psychodynamic theory and behavioral medicine I knew that this had adverse effects on treatment adherence and efficacy.

I have enjoyed working within my scope of practice and have gained much insight through the patients I have come to know as people. I never stop listening, and I never stop learning.


Dr. Aaron M. Mills, DACM, L.Ac., Dipl. OM, is a Licensed Acupuncturist & Herbalist, with National Board Certifications in Acupuncture, Biomedicine, Herbal Medicine, and Oriental Medicine- NCCAOM.

In addition to completing professional medical education in acupuncture, herbology, and biomedicine, his educational background includes undergraduate and graduate education and training in psychology, and undergraduate education in biology.

Dr. Mills has over 20 years of experience in health and human services. He has worked in both inpatient and community-based settings and has been responsible for both direct service provision to patients and clients as well as the development and training of staff performing direct services.

Having a developed interest in mind-body connections and the role of health psychology and behavioral medicine in patients’ recovery, it was a natural transition to study Acupuncture and Asian Medicine. As a physician of East Asian Medicine and Functional Medicine, Dr. Mills genuinely enjoys effectively treating and assisting patients in engaging and empowering themselves actively working towards achieving their health and wellness goals.

While originally from Chicago, he has lived on the West Coast with his wife for over 10 years. He is an avid outdoors enthusiast who enjoys mountain biking, surfing, camping, and hiking.

Dr. Aaron Mills, DACM, LAC, Dip. OM
Integrative Medicine
MILLS Acupuncture- Functional Medicine & Herbs
Seattle, WA, USA

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