“I should’ve trusted my gut.” We’ve all said this at one time or another. But what does it really mean? Have you ever gotten “butterflies” in a particular situation? How about that “pit in your stomach” that causes you to all but double-over? Ever been so nervous or freaked out by an event (or impending event) that your “stomach turns” and you vomit?! That’s fun, right? These are all the work of your Enteric Nervous System (ENS). Yay, science!
Keep reading, you wimp… this is important sciencey stuff I’m relaying here…
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the “brain in the gut” was even studied. American physician Byron Robinson, and his British colleague, physiologist Johannis Langley (he’s the guy who coined the term Enteric Nervous System), were the original physicians studying the effect, if any, the “gut brain” had on the “head brain.”
What they found was astonishing, and is finally being re-evaluated and studied more closely today. “A lot of the information that the gut sends to the brain affects well-being, and doesn’t even come to consciousness,” says Michael Gershon at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, New York.
Do you know what this means?!
The gut is our original, reptilian-like brain (well, it’s our original nervous system, actually)!
Many researchers now believe it was the ENS that would give rise to the formation of the brain in the skulls of more complex vertebrates, and eventually us! Crazy, right?! Keep reading, soon-to-be science non-wimp…
We now know that the ENS is most likely the original “brain” in terms of the evolutionary process of single celled organisms, invertebrates, and vertebrates. “The nervous system actually started out in the gut,” says Emeran Mayer, director of the UCLA Center for Neuro-visceral Sciences and Women’s Health, in an article for Psychology Today. He explains that enteric nervous circuits of primal organisms, with the most rudimentary nervous systems, are the same circuits that are found in the ENS (enteric nervous systems) of higher mammals, and would ultimately evolve into brains. Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger. Daft Punk logic right there, baby. (click me and let me play while you’re reading on!)
“Trust your gut” doesn’t just mean “go for it” or “put on the brakes/run away”– it means trust the original system which was the protector of your entire self! The ENS literally uses its 500 million neurons to sense when the body is in or out of homeostasis (balance), and works both independently of, or in conjunction with, the brain in our head to decide how we should react to a given situation or stimulus. That’s some pretty amazing shit, if you ask me. 500 million neurons (as many as in the human spinal chord with about the same power as a cat’s brain) that science is just now finding may actually influence behavior, as well as emotional well-being, on a subconscious, micro level. Wait! Keep reading! This will all make more sense in a hot second…
So, while the scientists and neurogastroenterologists are hashing out the connection between the upper and lower brains, I’m gonna’ go ahead and agree with Dr. Michael Gershon’s take: “The brain in the gut plays a major role in human happiness and misery.” I don’t know about you, but when my tummy ain’t happy, I ain’t happy, am I right?
To best explain that, I’d like to offer this (verbatim) abstract from the journal Psychology Review. I generally do not employ large paragraph copy and paste in my posts, but this next bit requires it:
“The brain and immune system form a bidirectional communication network in which the immune system operates as a diffuse sense organ, informing the brain about events in the body. This allows the activation of immune cells to produce physiological, behavioral, affective, and cognitive changes that are collectively called sickness, which function to promote recuperation. Fight-flight evolved later and coopted this immune-brain circuitry both because many of the needs of fight-flight were met by this circuitry and this cooptation allowed the immune system to respond to potential injury in anticipatory fashion. Many sequelae of exposure to stressors can be understood from this view and can take on the role of adaptive responses rather than pathological manifestations. Finally, it is argued that activation of immune-brain pathways is important for understanding diverse phenomena related to stress such as depression and suppression of specific immunity.” (Maier SF, Watkins LR. Psychol Rev. 1998 Jan;105(1):83-107. Review. PMID: 9450372)
HOLY. HELL. WHAT?!
I could go on and on about the ENS, glial cells, the importance of correct food consumption for proper digestion and happiness, etc., but I’m fairly certain you’re tapped out on the science. Good job for hanging in there! The science portion of the “gut brain” has now concluded.
So… why did I give you that Cliff’s Notes version of the physiology of your gut?
Because we need to be listening to the signals it is sending. It is the perfect regulatory system, built and refined over hundreds of thousands of years. It functions to find stasis ALWAYS, and when it’s not balanced, it tells us. The problem we face, especially today, is that we are bombarded by so many things that compete for our attention– family, work, Facebook, the Cubs game– that we are losing our ability to listen to the signals our bodies are trying desperately to give us. Signals that our external environment is affecting our internal environment, i.e., begging us to get out of a bad relationship, or leave a job that is sucking the life out of us. It shows up as illness, weakness, lethargy, constant gastrointestinal distress, depression and/or anxiety. Researchers are even now finding there may be significant factors influencing Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Autism in the gut flora. We mask the symptoms with medications, but we aren’t listening to, or acknowledging, the things causing the symptoms.
What can we do about it?
The Buddhist act of meditation is meant to make our mind one with our body. See what I did there? Mind/Body = head brain/gut brain? Totally went there. It happens only when we are focused on ourselves, in the quietest of moments, listening to our breathing, and quieting the cacophony of distraction in our minds. It is with a steady practice of meditation, and consequently understanding and listening to our most primal self, that we will find the path on which we are to be, to remove ourselves from the things that impede that path, and to get ourselves to wholeness and fullness of life.
It’s freakin’ hard stuff, man! I struggle with it every day. It’s the struggle that drives me; it’s what causes me to really listen to what my body is telling me. Ya’ know what I found? I was a really unhappy, emotionally un-well shell of my former self. And that lit a nice little fire under my ass to make some serious changes.
Quiet yourself today, sit or lay down comfortably, inhale through your nose, out through your mouth, from the deepest part of your belly, and just be present in your own skin without distractions for at least 20 minutes. If thoughts come into your mind — and they will!– acknowledge them, and refocus on your breathing. Go through your whole body in your mind’s eye: your head, eyes, neck, shoulders, arms, down your back, heart, belly, pelvis, legs, knees, ankles, fingers and toes.
Pay attention to which parts of the body “stick out” to you as you meditate; those are the parts that need some attention, and are potentially holding tension, emotional pain (fear, guilt, shame, anger). Acknowledge them, ask your body to forgive the pain you’ve inflicted on it, and for its help in aiding you on the journey to heal it. Don’t roll your eyes, this is some effective stuff here to get yourself back in tune with yourself.
If you’re finding that you’re kicking yourself for “not trusting your gut” time and time again, or are tired of having that feeling in the pit of your stomach, it’s time to start changing your behaviors by listening to what your body is trying to tell you.
I know this seems like a nearly impossible request for some of you to execute. I understand your time constraints, your responsibilities, and the franticness of your daily life completely. F***ing do it anyway. This is your health I’m talking about, and you’re going to be useless as a partner, parent, bestie, as your most abundant YOU, if you stay in the condition you’re currently in. Think about it like this; if you saw 17 signs on your way to work that said “BEWARE: QUICKSAND AHEAD,” would you honestly drive right into the stuff? That’s exactly what we’re doing every time we don’t pay attention to the brain in our gut. Walk around with THAT image for a little while and tell me how comfy you’d be continuing down the same ol’ path.
Now thank your gut for having the damn decency to continually signal your head brain that something is amiss.