If you’re a lover of intelligence, it’s likely you regard the brain as the supreme ‘intelligence’ organ. This is the belief of most Americans, until now. There’s another kind of intelligence that’s an equally potent metabolic force, and it’s found in the belly. Some call it the “gut-brain,” others proclaim it to be the “brain in the belly.” However you choose to name it, it’s way smarter than you might have ever imagined. And putting this extra brainpower to work can forever change your metabolism, and your life. Let me explain: scientists have revealed that we have two brains – the other one is located in the digestive tract.
Known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), the gut’s brain is housed under the mucosal lining and between the muscular layers of the esophagus, the stomach, and the small and large intestines. The enteric nervous system is a rich and complicated network of neurons and neurochemicals that sense and control events in other parts of the body, including the brain. When scientists finally counted the number of nerve cells in the gut-brain, they found it contained over one hundred million neurons – more than the number of nerve cells in the spinal chord. The implication here is that we’re talking about a huge source of potentially untapped intelligence.
Amazingly, researchers have observed a greater that 70% of these neurons transmit in a one-way direction, going from the gut to the brain. This is saying that 70% of the ENS is run by the gut, and maybe, that’s why “willpower” has nothing to do with your brain and everything to do with your gut health and gut brain? In other words, rather than the head informing the digestive system what to eat and how to metabolize, the locus of appetite command is stationed in the belly.
Your gut clearly has a lot to say, and the head-brain happily listens.
In addition to an extensive network or neurons, the entire digestive tract is also lined with cells that produce the same substances, in fact, that were previously thought to be found in the brain alone. These include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and glutamate. Even more eye-opening is the fact that many hormones and chemicals previously thought to exist only in the gut were later found to be active in the brain. These included: insulin, cholecystokinin, vasoactive intestinal protein, motilin, gastrin, somato-statin, thyroptropin releasing hormone, neurostensin, secretin, substance P, glucagon and bombesin.
The enteric nervous system (the gut-brain) and the central nervous system (the head-brain) also share another intriguing similarity. In the sleep state, the head-brain moves through cycles of 90 minutes of slow-wave sleep frequencies, immediately followed by rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in which dreams are produced. The gut-brain also moves through a nightly cycle of 90 minutes of slow-wave muscular contractions followed by brief spurts of rapid muscular movements.
Is your gut dreaming?
Another compelling discovery is that the entire digestive tract is lined with specialized cells that produce and receive endorphins and enkephalins, chemicals that yield an array of sensations including joy, satisfaction, and pain relief. Most of the digestive sensations we are aware of tend to be negative ones, such as digestive upset and discomfort. Yet, the warm gut feelings we sometimes experience after a satisfying meal or an exciting encounter are, in part, the enteric nervous system squirting pleasure chemicals at distant and neighboring cells. Your gut is literally designed to let you know when you’re feeling good – just in case you forget to notice.
As many of us know, the gut is often a barometer of our emotional states and stresses. Those who suffer from peptic ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, upset stomach, and other conditions would certainly concur. So when we say we can’t “stomach” a situation, or something makes us want to “gag,” or we have “a knot” in our stomach, we’re actually expressing real-life psychophysiological sensations that arise from the enteric nervous system – the brain in the belly.
Perhaps this is why the gut produces and abundance of a class of chemicals known as the benzodiazepines. These psychoactive substances are the active ingredients in the prescription drugs Valium and Xanax. That’s right – your gut naturally produces these drugs, in their exact chemical form, without a prescription and at no extra cost.
In Japan, the midsection is considered the seat of wisdom and the locus of our center of gravity, both physical and spiritual. Known as the hara, this place of ultimate balance is centered around a point just below the navel. The Japanese quite literally refer to the hara as their place of higher thought just as Americans might point to the head as the location of “central command.” In other words, when we Americans say in a convincing tone, “I know,” we’ll point to our heads.
When the Japanese say, “I know,” they point to the belly. That’s because the Japanese are, in part, accessing the neurochemical potential of the gut-brain. Americans express this understanding to a different degree when they compliment someone by saying, “You’ve got guts.” Seldom do we praise others for having a liver or a spleen.
Usually when people decide to focus on the belly it’s about making the belly firmer or stronger. FEWL proposes a different approach. Make the belly smarter before endeavoring to make it firmer. The less intelligent your gut, the more difficult it will be for your belly to find its proper tone. A well-defined muscle is an intelligent one. The obsession that so many Americans have with “tight abs” is a misplaced desire to use the wisdom of the midsection more proficiently. By trusting our ability to build gut-intelligence and gut-health, ego-driven fears naturally fall away and our true self-respect is revealed.
Our gut intelligence has been underused, and perhaps even dumbed down from decades of poor quality food, stressed eating and an ever more toxic world. It’s time to exercise your gut wisdom. Can you tune in to this part of your physiology? Can you ask your gut for feedback? Do you notice your gut feelings? What does your gut-brain say your body is hungering for? How does it assess the person in front of you? Again, the enteric nervous system is capable of its own unique kind of intelligence that’s different from head brain intellect. It has its own brand of smarts that’s delivered via subtle sensations, curious feelings, instinct, and intuitions. So, do you have the guts to listen to your gut knowing? Are you ready to stop judging your gut, or exercising it into submission just for a moment, and hear its whispers?
And if so, what does your gut have to say to you? What were your gut assessment results?