We know that the gut is an important part of the body, but is its importance fully understood? Why should we trust our gut? What is the science behind gut instinct? How can good gut health help to improve our overall health and well being?
“All disease begins in the gut.”
said Hippocrates (the Greek physician who was considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine).
Here we explore the importance of the gut and how by understanding it we can see improvements in our daily lives…
The Evolution of Gut Instinct
Our gut is almost as important as our brain or our heart, but we know very little about it. Before we can truly understand our gut, it’s important to understand the origins of gut instinct and the science behind it.
Before our logical brain engages we can feel a tingling deep in the belly. This gut reaction informs us that there is something to be nervous or anxious about and encourages us to act. This ‘gut instinct’ is the last remaining instinct leftover from the Neanderthal era when the instinct evolved to inform us of approaching danger from predators before we could see them. Humans developed this instinct to help their brain tell them what to do to keep them safe. The methods are easily remembered as the ‘five Fs’….
- Flight “You’re in real danger, run away!”
- Fight “Stay where you are and defend yourself”
- Freeze “Freeze and play dead, the enemy might retreat/ignore you”
- Food “Eat to gain energy and nutrition”
- Fornicate “Procreate to increase the species!” (think of the baby boom after the war)
These days we don’t usually find ourselves in life or death situations (thank goodness!), but the gut instinct remains and acts in the same way as it did all those millions of years ago. The survival/gut instinct still works in the same way it always has, it’s just our acceptance of it that has changed.
The Science Behind Gut Instinct
Embedded in the lining of the intestine are billions of neurons which make up your body’s Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The vagus nerve in the base of the brain runs from the brain to the chest and abdomen, connecting directly with the ENS. The signals we receive in our ENS then instructs our brain what to do in order to remain safe. Whatever the brain decides to do (run, freeze or fight!), the gut will send more blood to the arms and legs in case you want to run or fight a predator. When you trust your gut, you are actually trusting your brain to inform you of an impending risk or harm.
How is Emotion Linked to the Gut?
The second type of gut instinct is the what we think of as intuition. Intuition gives us the ability to know something directly without logical thinking. It bridges the gap between the conscious and non-conscious parts of our mind.
Intuition is a feeling, an overriding sense that we should act in a certain way or make certain choices based on how we feel. As a culture we usually give more credit to rational thinking than to what we feel in our heart and gut. We have learned to override our ‘hunch’ when making important decisions, instead relying on analytical reasoning and using logic. As a result, we all too often we wish we had listened to our intuition when a scenario doesn’t turn out as we’d hoped (which is actually pretty common when we don’t listen to our intuition!).
Intuition is not always understood as it is so deeply rooted in emotion and scientists don’t always give full credit to the link between emotion and our physical selves. If there were no link between emotion and our physical bodies, then how do we explain the tingle of goosebumps when hearing a beautiful piece of music, or a healthy elderly person dying within weeks of their lifelong spouse passing away?
Listening to our intuition is sometimes deemed frivolous or irresponsible, but it is a crucial mechanism for our survival and well being. Unlike animals who rely solely on instinct, humans benefit from being able to use both logical thinking and intuition together. Harnessing the power of both is an incredibly powerful tool we have as humans, next time you hear ‘follow your gut!’ you’ll realise it’s not a brainless act at all…
Ways to Listen to Your Gut Instinct
Here are three simple ways of listening to your internal voice and heeding that all-important gut instinct:
- Write a Diary/Blog Sometimes we keep our subconscious thoughts buried so deeply that we can’t even hear them ourselves. Writing down our thoughts can help to release our inner thoughts and connect us with our subconscious mind. This makes us more in touch with our intuition, and as a result more likely to listen to our gut instinct when we need to.
- Grow Confidence Trusting yourself to navigate a tricky situation successfully without second-guessing or doubting yourself is a huge challenge, but once you find that you ARE capable and you ARE worthy then you will have more confidence to trust your inner voice and bring your instinctual awareness back to everyday life.
- Turn Negativity into Positivity Understand the importance of acting on your inner thoughts and don’t worry about being judged or ridiculed. No one else is even remotely qualified to be you (!) so let your individuality shine and don’t let the fear of others judging you dampen your inner thoughts.
Gut Health and Its Importance for Overall Well Being
The intestines are home to the “gut microbiome” which controls our overall physical and mental health. A person has roughly 500 different species of bacteria in their digestive tract and scientists are only just discovering how important these microorganisms living in their digestive system are to overall health; from obesity, allergies and even Alzheimer’s, research is beginning to reveal that the secrets to overall health and wellness can perhaps be found in the gut.
“having a wide variety of these good bacteria in your gut can enhance your immune system function, improve symptoms of depression, help combat obesity, and provide numerous other benefits”.
Many areas of modern life can affect and upset our delicate gut microbiome. Factors such as lack of sleep, eating processed food, too much sugar and taking antibiotics all have a negative impact on our gut which, in turn, can lead to ill-health (or worse). Here are the seven most common signs that you have unbalanced gut health:
- Stomach Problems If the gut is healthy it won’t have problems digesting food and so therefore will work effortlessly. Bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, heartburn and constipation can all be signs that your gut isn’t as healthy as it could be.
- A Processed Diet Food that is high in sugar and processed can make the good bacteria in your gut decrease and cause inflammation which can be the precursor to various diseases and even cancers.
- Changes in Weight An imbalance in the gut can stop your body from being able to absorb nutrients and store fat. Regulating blood sugars can also be impaired with an unhealthy gut. Any changes in weight or a sudden weight loss can indicate problems with the digestive tract.
- Fatigue and Disturbed Sleep Serotonin is produced in the gut, and this is the hormone which affects mood and sleep. Bad gut health can mean disrupted sleep patterns which in turn creates bad moods, lack of concentration and chronic fatigue.
- Skin Complaints Eczema and other skin conditions can be an indication of bad gut health due to important proteins ‘leaking’ into the body from the gut which irritates skin and creates rashes and lesions. Bad diet and food allergies can all be an indication of bad gut health.
- Autoimmune Illnesses New research is showing that bad gut health can produce inflammation of the immune system which in turn makes the body ‘attack itself’ and cause autoimmune diseases.
- Intolerances to Food A food allergy is due to the immune system rejecting certain foods. A food intolerance however is linked to the body having difficulty digesting certain foods, and this can be linked to the bacteria in the gut. Unpleasant symptoms such as gas, bloating and constipation are all indicators that you are intolerant to certain foods.
How Gut Health Affects the Brain
It’s not just physical illnesses which can occur as a result of bad gut health. An increasing body of research is finding that the gut microbiome is a key driver in mental health and good gut health is crucial to minimise risk of anxiety, depression, memory problems and even Alzheimer’s. As we explored above, the bacteria in the gut directly affects the vagus nerve in the brain. Serotonin — the master happiness hormone — is produced in the gut and neurologists and psychiatrists believe that this may be one reason antidepressants are often less effective in treating depression than proper dietary changes.
There is a neurotransmitter produced by the gut microbiomes called glutamate which plays an important role in memory, cognition and learning. Issues such as behaviour, Alzheimer’s and behavioural issues can be attributed to a lack of glutamate in the brain.
6 Ways to Improve Gut Health
- Eating a diverse range of whole foods can increase the diversity of your gut bacteria and overall will help to improve your gut health.
- Avoid processed foods as these will only serve to disrupt and eradicate good gut bacteria. Studies also show that eating a plant-based vegetarian/vegan diet is a good way of promoting good gut bacteria (this may be due to higher fibre content) – meat can alter the bacteria in the gut and introduce ‘bad’ bacteria.
- Eating lots of whole grains helps improve gut health as whole grains contain non-digestible carbs that can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria within the gut microbiota and helps to lessen the risk of certain diseases.
- Eat Prebiotics which are found in many types of fruit, vegetables and also on their own. Consuming prebiotics can help reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
- Eating foods rich in polyphenols is important for reducing inflammation, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Polyphenols are found in red wine (yes!), green tea, dark chocolate, almonds, blueberries, grape skins and broccoli.
- Limiting the use of antibiotics is one of the main ways you can protect your gut bacteria. Taking antibiotics not only destroys the ‘bad’ bacteria in your body, it destroys ALL bacteria. Try more natural alternative ways to treat ailments with antibiotics the very last resort. If you DO have to take antibiotics then be sure to replace the good bacteria in the gut with a supplement such as Optibac probiotics.
It is overwhelmingly apparent that our gut is a crucial indicator of health and can affect our entire bodies and minds in so many ways. To remain as healthy as possible, look after your gut bacteria and ensure it is as healthy as can be. Eat well and in turn your body will remain strong, healthy and miraculous. Trust your gut!
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