The Brain in the 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 or the brain in the belly 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.

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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.

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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

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  • Senay

    Dear Marc,
    I’m sitting here in total awe. Each of your articles so far has contributed greatly to my deeper understanding of the POE. I’m currently helping others with this topic and I am beyond grateful, in fact close to tears, that this information is being revealed to me. Your book has arrived in the mail today and I will digest the information contained joyfully. That’s for sure. If I had a few euros on the side I would totally apply to become an IPE coach. Luckily the universal forces are orchestrating all I need to know at just the right time :) So I am complete – for now ;)
    Much love to you from Germany!

    Senay

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Hi Senay,

      I’m thrilled that you’re finding so much delight and support from this work. Thank you so much for your kind and generous words. It’s amazing how the universe assists us in the ways that we need most. Keep up your great work in the world!

      Best,
      Marc David

  • Purneema

    Its so beautiful… yes sometime we do have gut feeling… but thats it… not thought much abt it… now that I recollect, they say Solar plex chakra is in belly and it is intelligent… thnx Marc for sharing this..
    Purneema

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Hi Purneema –

      I like hearing that the solar plexus chakra is responsible for intelligence. Makes perfect sense in light of the hara concept – thank you for this insight!

      Best,
      Marc David

  • summer

    Thank You very much! this is beyond helpful :)

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Hi Summer –

      You are so welcome! I’m so glad you found it useful.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • Michele

    Dear Marc,

    Again, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my experiences regarding this subject matter, the enteric nervous system.
    As far back as I can remember, I have not given much importance to this part of my body. If anything, I’ve always considered it my enemy, fearing that if I let my gut loose I would look overweight and not perfect. So for a long time my belly has been a sort of burden, something else that I had to control to avoid a feeling of self judgement and disapproval. For years I would hold my stomach in while living my life and (most likely) missing out on what was going on around me. I was caught by the perfect body “bug” and it stayed with me for a long time. One thing I’ve learned recently is that getting in touch with my gut-brain is not something that can be achieved easily, especially if I’m in a constant battle with my self image. I’ve had to learn to be alive again. With a good yoga practice, the termination of weight lifting workouts, slowing down my eating, and a copy of “The Slow Down Diet” (and all its beautiful nuggets of wisdom), I was able to become more aware of my ENS. Now, every time I catch myself holding in my stomach and breath, I release and reassure myself that it’s okay to be me “wholly and in my most natural state”. I remind myself that my gut-brain has so much to offer, that it’s very wise and has the power to enhance my overall intelligence if I can get the two to unite. The easiest way for me to access this knowledge has been through breathing awareness, a practice I’ve incorporated into my everyday life. Now I know why most Buddha statues show extended bellies and they have a happy smile on their face. I think it’s possible that they learned to use all their body wisdom to their advantage, and in this way reached enlightenment! Just throwing possibilities out there!
    I’m not saying I’ve healed myself from all body image issues. Far from it, but understanding how important it is to bond and love my ENS, gives me a good reason to release some of the fears and dislikes I have about myself.
    Thank you for shedding light on these VERY IMPORTANT topics!

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Hi Michele –

      This is fantastic!
      I think so many other readers will feel camaraderie with you in your experiences here: this feeling of constantly trying to maintain control, holding ourselves in, never breathing fully, never letting ourselves truly be in our bodies without modification or restriction. We can be really hard on ourselves.
      I’m happy to hear that you’ve found some helpful nuggets to “gnaw on” in the Slow Down Diet, and that you’re also finding benefit in a good yoga practice. It’s the perfect cure for a lifetime of holding your breath.

      All in all, it sounds like you’re on a good path, a good beginning – good for you!
      Buddha was definitely onto something.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • Paul

    Very well expressed. In the divine synergy, I created a formula w/ Ayurvedic herbs for Nervous system support. The herbs strengthened the nerve connection to the brain and colon.
    Back to your article, the aspects of encouraging more people to use their creative personal insight to cause more thoughtful conversations can only uplevel the culture. I appreciate the informative and thought evoking way the article was put together. Bringing attention to unconscious habits of all of us, the writing provided an important focus on our psychology, physiologically, health, and our ability to focus on an important topic.

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Paul –

      I agree, there is so much knowledge that has been forgotten about how to support the nervous system. I’m so glad you feel this article is empowering and evocative. Thank you for all the work you’re doing in the world to up uplift the spirits and health of the people you serve.

      Warm Regards,
      Marc David

  • Nina

    Great article! It makes so much sense and I can totally relate.

    Thank you!

  • http://www.yourinnerjoy.com Gwen Irwin

    Thanks Marc–this is great information!
    I have really gotten into juicing this past year and I find even after just a three day cleanse I am much more able to hear what my gut is telling me it wants to eat rather than listening to my crazy craving driven brain.
    I always get a lot from your posts–thank you for the great work that you do!

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Gwen –

      Isn’t it amazing what happens when we clear out all background noise and really listen? I think many of us are fascinated and surprised to hear what our bodies actually want from us. Good for you for tuning in.

      Warmly,
      Marc David

  • Adam M

    Hi Mark,

    Wow, this article has given me so much additional knowledge, I didn’t even know about this Enteric Nervous System. Now I know where the phrase “gut feeling” came from and the facts behind it. Amazing! We really should always listen to our body in every situation. Thanks for sharing this great blog.

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Hi Adam,

      I agree – our bodies are wise and always trying to tell us something, and our job is to simply listen.
      Thanks for the kind words.

      Warmly,
      Marc David

  • Darlene

    Marc,

    Have you ever read “New Self New World” by Philip Shepherd? It’s a fantastic book…. and right up your alley!!!

    Darlene

  • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

    Hey Darlene

    Thanks for the tip – I’ll put it on my list!

    Best,
    Marc David

  • Paul H

    “You’ve probably heard the estimates that we use less than 10% of our brain capacity.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_percent_of_brain_myth

  • http://suzan.nashashibi@facebook.com Suzan Nashashibi RNutr

    Its really so interesting to read about the brain in the belly i guess it explains a lot of what we hear every day in our clinics .It clarifies unexplained dilemmas of excessive binge eating trends that probably happens when brain in the belly is disregarded neglected so itgoes haywire .I guess this brain instinctive spontaneous and so far we thougt this is loss of control but now i see it as loss of synchronicity between head brain and gut brain thx very simple yet complex

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Susan,
      Thanks for joining the conversation here. I’m happy you’re seeing the truth of this in your own work place and life.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • seema

    Dear Marc
    As most others, i too am most intrigued by your articles. I find them thought provoking. And it’s like
    some pieces ot the jigsaw are falling in place. I was pretty much fine weightwise till about 16 yrs ago.
    Then my mom passed away. I put on 10-15 kgs within 8-10 weeks. Which i have not lost till today.

    Hope to hear from you.
    Thank you for your articles.
    Seema

  • seema

    P.S.
    And over the years i have put on even more. i am 22 kilos heavier than before. I do overeat. I enjoy
    food. Am not a fussy eater. Prefer it simple tangy and hot(temperature wise). I have become a lot more laid back and spaced out. Earlier i was vibrant and on-the-go, if u know what i mean.

    Seema

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Hi Seema
      I’m so glad my work is helpful for you.
      And I’m not sure if you are looking for this, but if you are interested in some professional coaching around your relationship with food and with getting to a good place, I recommend going to our Eating Psychology Coach Directory and finding a practitioner.

      My best wishes to you always,
      Marc

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you Marc, this makes a lot of sense! Not heard of this before … it’s so true, no matter what age, we can learn something new every day!
    Cheers,
    Elizabeth

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Elizabeth –
      Thanks for the kind words here!

      Best,
      Marc

  • 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

  • Martha Love

    Marc, your article is excellent. I love that you are encouraging “making the gut smarter”, not just tighter.
    I too have worked all my adult life in counseling and exploring the intelligence of the gut response and gut instincts. My colleague, Robert Sterling, and found with 100s of people that the gut response has a sort of yes-no or most call it empty-full feeling that reflects the impact of experience in life. The emptiness is felt when our instinctual needs of acceptance and being in control of our own responces to life are not met. Full ness comes with the fulfillment of these two needs. And what we found most interesting is that this response is recorded and retrievable in somatic reflection on “how it has felt to be” going back to childhood. Through concentrating on this gut feeling of empty-full and reflecting back in time, people were able to recover memories they had not had since the occurrence and were also able to unit body-mind in full consciousness.
    When you wrote that our gut brain is “untapped”, I thought of what we found and wanted to share this with you. We have written a book about our theories and findings exploring gut intelligence in a book “What’s Behind Your Belly Button?” A Psychological Perspective of the Intelligence of Human Nature and Gut Instinct”, available on Amazon in the US and UK. Also, we would love it if you would come read some of our blog posts and comment with your many insights at http://instinctualgutfeelings.blogspot.com

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

      Dear Martha, Thank you so much for posting these thoughtful comments and for sharing about your work! This looks like a wonderful resource! Warm regards, Marc

  • Allison Post

    Wonderful article. I co authored a book that was published in 2003 called Unwinding the Belly: Healing with Gentle Touch that includes the sentiments and information in your article. And yes, it was based on my study of yoga and taoist qi gong. We have known this in our hearts and bellies for millennium, and now it is time for our brains to catch up!

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

      Thanks so much for your comment, Allison! So glad to have you in our community :) Warmly, 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.