Why Your Gut Instinct Is So Much More Than A Sixth Sense
We all tend to use the terms “gut intuition”, or “follow your gut”, but are these terms simply strange figures of speech, or is there something a little more to it? When we refer to our gut feelings, we usually mean having an instinctive sense about something that we can’t really explain. We might also think of having butterflies in our stomach, or even the sense that strong feelings come from somewhere deep in our abdomen. What you may not realise is that, hidden within the walls of your digestive system, you actually have what could be considered a second brain. The scientific term for this second brain is the enteric nervous system — or ENS for short — and it contains some 500 million neurons!
When Did We Start Attributing The Gut With Emotions?
Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus provided one of the first written examples of tracing emotion to the gut. As a master of the Ancient Greek tragedy genre, many future playwrights and poets followed his lead in drawing this connection between the digestive organs and turbulent feelings such as anger and love. In this time, the Greek word slpankhnon described the principal internal organs, which were thought to be the seat of a variety of powerful emotions. In slight contrast, Hebrews of the same era also believed that the gut drove feelings, but specifically attributed positive emotions such as tenderness, kindness, benevolence, and compassion to the gut.
Some have theorised that the adoption of the word “heart”, over the course of the translation of the Bible towards it’s current forms, have evolved erroneously, having once meant something more akin to “bowel” when talking about that with emotional roots. Before we step out of the annals of history, it’s perhaps worth mentioning the curious demise of Aeschylus. While visiting Sicily in 455 BC, the Greek tragedian met a near unbelievable fate when a bird of prey dropped a turtle on his head, mistaking it for a rock that might be used to crack the animal’s shell. And so, the tragedy was that he was struck by the tortoise, rather than a gut instinct that might save him!
Emotion And The Gut: What Is The Actual Truth Of The Matter?
Those 500 million neurons may seem like a lot, but it remains small potatoes in comparison to the 100 billion neurons housed between your ears. Your ENS may not be capable of doing your taxes or dreaming of romance, but it can act independently of your brain — controlling the function of your digestive system. The ENS is also in constant communication with the brain, primarily via the vagus nerve — via communication is often referred to as the gut-brain axis. There is, in fact, a three way communication between the ENS, bacteria within our gut, and our limbic brain. Fascinatingly, our limbic brain is the area of our brain responsible for our instinctive responses, emotions, and decision making.
Neurotransmitters And The Gut-Brain Axis
Most of us are familiar with the concept that neurotransmitters are vital for brain function, and responsible for our emotional well-being. While many of these important chemicals are produced within the brain, fascinatingly, many of them are also produced by both gut cells, and microbes living within our guts! Serotonin — commonly referred to as the happiness hormone, and associated with depression — is in fact 90% produced within the digestive tract. Gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA, which is responsible for regulating feelings of fear and anxiety, is not only produced within the gut, but is made on our behalf by gut microbes. Next time you are advised to take a probiotic, perhaps take the value of GABA into account!
Gut Health, Immunity, And Inflammation
The gut-brain axis also plays an important role in the functioning of the immune system. The gut, and microbes within it, dictate what is metabolised and absorbed by the digestive system, impacting both immunity and inflammation. When certain bacteria take hold within the gut, they produce Lipopolysaccharide, or LPS, which is is an inflammatory toxin. Too much LPS passing from the gut into the blood, and the inflammation it triggers, has been associated with several brain disorders, including depression, dementia and schizophrenia.
In contrast, improving gut health by promoting the presence of supportive gut bacteria has been associated with improved brain health. With this in mind, we of course think of probiotics — although it’s worth noting that not all probiotics are created equal. Those that are known to impact brain health are called psychobiotics. Examples of such that have demonstrable results in studies include Bifidobacterium Longum which, after a six week study, significantly improved participants’ symptoms of mild to moderate depression and anxiety, and Galactooligosaccharides, which one study demonstrated could significantly reduce cortisol levels after only three weeks. Certain probiotics and prebiotics both hold the capacity to improve mental health via the gut-brain axis, alongside a broadly healthy and balanced diet. The question remains, will you take care of your gut, in order to tune into your gut instinct?
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