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‘Gut instinct’ is backed by science

By on April 22, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Jim Brown

By Jim Brown, M.D.

How often have you heard someone say their gut told them not to do something or on the other hand told them to do something? 

I have heard people say for some decisions, they listen to their gut. 

This actually isn’t as preposterous as it might seem.

Our gut, or our gastrointestinal track, is more than a long tube that starts at our mouth and ends at the anus. After chewing food and swallowing, the intestinal tract absorbs calories and nutrients and gets rid of waste products at the end. 

Our gastrointestinal tract is one of our most, if not the most, complex organ system. I know my specialist friends in cardiology, neurology, pulmonary, endocrinology, kidney disease and others most likely feel the same about their special organ systems as well. Our bodies truly are amazing.

The gastrointestinal system includes the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestine, as well as the liver, gall bladder, pancreas and more. 

The gastrointestinal track is 30 feet long at autopsy in adults and contracts to a shorter length in our live adult bodies. 

The absorptive surface of the GI tract, including all the villi lining it, would cover half of a tennis court. 

The GI tract plays an important role in our immune system as well, preventing pathogens from entering our blood stream and lymph systems. The high acidity in our stomach is fatal to many pathogenic bacteria that enter it. 

Our pancreas makes enzymes that break down the proteins, carbohydrates and fats in our food so they can be absorbed by our intestinal track. It also makes the insulin that maintains our blood sugar in normal levels. 

The enteric nervous system is imbedded in the lining of the gut for the entire length of the gastrointestinal tract. 

Our gut’s nervous system has been called our “second brain.” It communicates with our central nervous system, our brain and our spinal cord. The enteric nervous system consists of 100 million neurons, one thousandth of the number of neurons in our brains and one tenth of our spinal cord.

Additionally our gut produces over 40 different hormones and as such is our body’s largest hormone producing organ. These hormones are complex, with their metabolic information relayed back and forth with our brain. 

Gut hormones play a key role, including controlling our food intake and regulating our energy expenditure. Our gut hormones work in association with the extensive nervous system and play a role in digesting our food, releasing hydrochloric acid in our stomach, and regulating our blood sugar levels. 

Some gut hormones increase our appetite while some hormones decrease our appetite. 

(However looking at our 25 percent plus morbid obesity rates, it suggests to me sometimes there must be an imbalance between the increasing and decreasing of our appetite. Hopefully, future research in gut hormones will include specific plant foods and extracts that can assist in the control of our appetite and energy needs of our bodies.)

So what does this have to do with our “gut instincts,” you might ask.

What we call our instincts are usually accompanied by some kind of physical sensation. Our bodies, including our gastrointestinal tract, are powerful communicators with our brains when things are not “right.” 

If you have a “gut feeling” something is toxic, weak or “off,” listen to it. 

Positive instincts are often accompanied by physical signs such as a feeling of warmth, ability to breathe easier, sharp clarity of vision or hearing, a wave of goose bumps, a fluttering feeling in our gut or a relating sensation in our gut as well as our shoulders. 

Negative or warning instincts are often accompanied by icy cold hands and feet or an overall chill. In addition, you may have a tingling or clenching pain in the abdomen or chest, nausea, an acid stomach, sudden fatigue or a sense of high alert. 

As I write this I had just talked to an acquaintance who was under going chemotherapy for cancer. Sometime before, she had  feelings telling her things were just not right in her body. She ended up getting an ultrasound and the CAT scan showing a treatable cancer. 

I am not suggesting running to your doctor when things don’t feel “right,” but if the feelings persist and you are concerned, it is wise to check them out.

According to researchers, intuition is far more material than it might seem. 

David Meyers, PhD psychologist who has extensively studied intuition, explains our intuitive right brain is almost always reading our surroundings even when our left brain is otherwise well engaged. 

This is a good thing. He suggests we might “feel” something when approaching potentially dangerous events because of our brain dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brain that can give us pleasure but also can help us by alerting us to subtle patterns we don’t consciously detect. 

Many of us have experienced a knowing of something before it happens even if we can’t explain how or why. Our body can process information while our conscious mind remains blissfully unaware of what’s going on around it. Sometimes we can have a suspicious feeling about a person or event. The opposite is also true. 

Pay attention to your instincts as well as to your gut.

Jim Brown, M.D., is a retired gastroenterologist who has practiced for 38 years in the Wenatchee area. He is a former CEO of the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center.

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