The Brain in Your Belly


If you’re a lover of intelligence, then it’s reasonable to assume that you’ve got some high regard for the brain. How many people would argue against the supremacy of one of our favorite and most useful organs? Modern medicine understands the head-brain to be “command central” – the place from which our entire life receives its marching orders. But 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:

Have you ever had “butterflies” in your stomach? A “lump” in your throat? Have you ever been moved by a strong and undeniable “gut feeling” about something or someone?

Few people would say they had an elbow feeling or a kidney feeling, but gut feelings are highly regarded as a source of intuitive knowing and insight in many cultures around the globe. As it turns out, gut thoughts and feelings are not a fanciful notion but a physiological fact. Rather than the one brain found in our head, 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. Amazingly, 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.

What’s fascinating to note is that researchers have observed a greater flow of neural traffic from the ENS to the head-brain than from the head-brain to the ENS. In other words, rather than the head informing the digestive system what to eat and how to metabolize, the locus of 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 and receive a variety of neuropeptides and neurochemicals, 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.

Want to know more about the connection between the brain and the belly? Register for our FREE video series - Dynamic Eating Psychology! You can access this Free Video Series HERE.

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.

What all this means is that there’s a tremendous amount of brain power in your belly, and such power goes largely untapped.

You’ve probably heard the estimates that we use less than 10% of our brain capacity. Well, the same applies for our use of the gut-brain’s potential. It’s an untapped source of wisdom, power and information.

So if you think you have a problem because your brain can’t process all the contradictory information about diet fed to you by the media and the experts, think again. You really don’t have a problem. Your brain isn’t equipped to handle all that input by itself. It’s not designed to handle a “high-fact” diet. When it comes to food, we are physiologically wired to hear the gut-brain speak its mind. The head-brain plays a mutually supportive role.

Like what you’re reading? Then you’ll LOVE our FREE video series - Dynamic Eating Psychology! You can access this Free Video Series HERE.

Seldom will you see a lion all confused and anxious about which would be the best nutritional choice for the evening meal – zebra or caribou – or whether hippopotamus should be avoided altogether because it’s too high in fat. Animals instinctively know what to eat. So do we. We just don’t know that we know this.

Usually when people decide to focus on the belly it’s about making the belly tighter or tougher. But let’s take care of first things first. Make the belly smarter before endeavoring to make it harder. 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 access gut-knowing, 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. So 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?

Warm regards,
Marc David
Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014

Tweet Me!

It’s time to exercise some gut wisdom

Do you notice your gut feelings?

Get your FREE video series
New Insights to Forever Transform Your Relationship With FOOD

The Dynamic Eating Psychology Breakthrough

 
Please use a correct email format e.g. jon@gmail.com
 
 

P.S. - If you haven’t had a chance to check out our FREE information packed video series – The Dynamic Eating Psychology Breakthrough – you can sign up for it HERE. It’s a great way to get a better sense of the work we do here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. If you’re inspired by this work and want to learn about how you can become certified as an Eating Psychology Coach, please go HERE to learn more. And if you’re interested in working on your own personal relationship with food, check out our breakthrough 8-week program designed for the public – Transform Your Relationship with Food™ HERE.

email
  • Matthew

    This is along the same lines as what the Eastern science of Yoga has been saying long before the advent of modern Western science. The concept of “Chakras” are perceived to be interconnected “command centres” which control and regulate certain bodily and mental functions, and are located and unified in various parts of the body, rather than all functions being controlled by the head-brain. I have a “gut feeling” that this is another case of modern science and the dissociation of reductionist rationalism reintegrating and playing catchup again.

  • Joelle Friedman

    Great article Marc! Thank you for putting in the time and energy and for being an awesome teacher.

    I have been thinking a great deal about how and where we experience life in our body, and how to move what we sens, towards the heart.
    I know, that for the longest time I have experienced life through my gut. It seems that I connected with life through this energy center. As I matured, had my kids, taught them what I never learned from my parents, I watched this energy center move towards my heart.
    Gut, brain, heart might be a good subject for next time!
    Warmly,
    Joelle

    • http://psychologyofeating.com Marc David

      Joelle,
      Thanks you for your continuing participation here, and for your generous words. Experiencing life through the gut is a very powerful place in fact – and of course, so is the heart – they just have different roles to play!

      How great that you’re able to pass this knowledge onto your children.

      Best,
      Marc

  • mBraining

    Hi Marc, wonderful post! I’d like to share some insights from our own work that links so beautifuly to what you have explicated.

    Informed by recent Neuroscience findings about the discovery of functional, adaptive and complex neural networks or ‘brains’ in the heart and gut, we’ve completed 3.5 years of behavioral modeling research on the core competencies of these brains and how they communicate and integrate with the head brain. We’ve written about our findings and the models and techniques in our recently published book ‘mBraining’. See http://www.mbraining.com for more info and free articles and mp3′s.

    In particular, what we found is that each brain has a ‘Highest Expression’, which is its most wisest and adaptive competency. For the Head it is Creativity, for the Heart, Compassion, and for the Gut brain it is Courage. And these highest expressions are integrative. They each require the other to enable the wisest forms of the competency.

    As another example, one of the many things we’ve uncovered in our work is that much of intuition is processed in both the heart and gut brains, and indeed the gut brain goes through a sleeping cycle each night that mimics and integrates with the equivalent of the head brain. When the head brain is dreaming during REM sleep, the gut brain is undergoing RGM (Rapid Gut Movement) sleep. The research indicates that it is during these periods, that intuitions are being communicated from the gut and heart, via the vagus channels, to the head. There are lots of distinctions and techniques that come out of these insights and that are directly applicable to coaching, training and evolutionary change.

    I hope you find the backup of this to your article as fascinating as we do. We’ve also developed a coaching model on how to coach the three brains to highest expression, if you are interesed here’s a short video on this work: http://vimeo.com/mbraining/review/101498727/91df7df4c2

    • http://www.psychologyofeating.com/ Psychology of Eating

      Hi mBraining,
      Thanks for the kind words, and thanks so much for sharing your work, it sounds super fascinating! I will check out your work. So glad there are others out there who are doing research in this area. Bravo! Best, Marc

About The Author
Marc David
Founder

Marc David is the Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, a leading visionary, teacher and consultant in Nutritional Psychology, and the author of the classic and best-selling works Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet.

His work has been featured on CNN, NBC and numerous media outlets. His books have been translated into over 10 languages, and his approach appeals to a wide audience of eaters who are looking for fresh, inspiring and innovative messages about food, body and soul.

He lectures internationally, and has held senior consulting positions at Canyon Ranch Resorts, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, and the Disney Company. Marc is also the co-founder of the Institute for Conscious Sexuality and Relationship.