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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  • 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

    • 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

About The Author
Marc David

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.