Do you trust your gut feelings? Why is it in yoga that the center of personal power is Manipurna, the solar plexus chakra? How do you sometimes “just know” without words? The answers may literally be inside your gastrointestinal system.
First, a quick neuroanatomy lesson. The electrical wiring of of our bodies is the nervous system. The basic cell of the nervous system is the neuron (though like any star, neurons have a supporting cast of cells). Nerves communicate through a chemical and electrical system. Some neurons sense information, some process and store information and some execute actions. Together, the neurons compose the nervous system of the body. One way to look at the nervous system in terms of anatomy– where structures lie in the body: the Central Nervous System, (CNS) is the brain and spinal cord, protected by bone. There are about 100 billion cells in the central nervous system alone! The Peripheral Nervous System is all the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. The nervous system is also classified by function–conscious and unconscious activities. The Somatic Nervous System controls the voluntary movements of the body, like flexing a bicep. Unconscious functions are controlled by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which runs all the processes of the body we don’t usually think about, like circulation of blood, the regulation of breathing and the digestion of food.
The ANS has three parts. The Sympathetic nervous system, responsible for “fight or flight” responses, the Parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for “rest and digest” responses. The third part of the ANS is the enteric nervous system (ENS). I believe the Enteric NErvous System is why you should trust your gut feelings and part of why Manipurna is located at the level of the stomach.
The ENS is anatomically different from the rest of the ANS. The parasympathetic and sympathetic systems are tied to the brain and spinal cord. The ENS is made of a mass of neural tissue embedded along nine meters our guts, from the esophagus to the anus, including our stomach and intestines. It contains about 500 million neurons. Compared to the CNS, that doesn’t seem like a lot, until you consider that the majority of the neurons of the CNS lie within the brain. In terms of cells outside the brain, the ENS has the most neurons in its system. Traditionally, ENS is described as coordinating the complex mechanical and chemical processing of food in our body. The ENS can and does operate independently of the CNS, thereby called “the second brain”, though the two brains do communicate via the “brain-gut axis”. We are aware of this connection when a mental stressor causes heartburn (increased acid production in the stomach and a relaxation of the esophageal sphincter) or the sensation of “butterflies in the stomach”. Since language and words are part of the CNS, communication from the ENS can seem to have no words– just feelings or simply a sensation of knowing.
New research is being done on this old wisdom in our bodies, in the field of neurogastroenterology. The aim is to treat diseases via this brain-gut system. Our knowledge about this complex system is expanding and evolving constantly. For example, there is a new appreciation for the neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are involved in regulating moods like happiness and more subtle moods like satiety that are present in the enteric system.
There is a vast system in our body, observing the environment, processing information, making assessments outside of the brain. Because words and conscious thoughts are at the level of the brain, messages from your gut are often in the form of wordless or hard to describe sensations and feelings. As humans, we are so tuned into words and thoughts, we miss these messages and don’t tend to tune into this vast and innate intelligence.
So how can you harness your brain-gut axis?
First, start by listening. You already know when you are shocked that you feel “sucker punched” or when something is so wrong it “makes you sick to your stomach”. Listen to those feelings embedded in your body and you will start to become aware of more messages. A second way is by observing your body’s reactions. Do certain foods cause heartburn? Your body is telling you that it doesn’t like the offending food. Change your food choices and notice how you feel. Another habit to develop is noting how you feel emotionally before and after eating particular foods. An obvious one is craving something sweet: is it really from hunger– or is it a response to anxiety or fatigue? Is the crash after the pleasure of the initial sugar rush worth it? (Sometimes it is, that’s okay, too.) Keeping a food/mood diary for a few days can be eye opening. When you see the before and after patterns particular foods cause, it’s easier to manage the cravings and indulge wisely. You can do the same thing for people, places and situations. What does your gut have to tell you about your habits?
Another way to use your gut is to simply ask it questions. You can ask yourself, “Is this what I really need? Is this good for me?” Listen to the answer. You don’t need to limit yourself to asking your gut about food. Sit or lie down somewhere quiet, place your hands lightly over your belly, take a few deep breaths and ask your gut for advice or insight to problems. Don’t be dismayed if an immediate answer doesn’t come, it may later because the ENS processes information differently than the brain. Remember that gut messages may not come in words, they may come the form of a quiet thought or feeling or sudden idea.
Ask your gut. Trust your gut. You’ve always known that and now you know there’s science behind it.