THE BRAIN IN THE BELLY
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 some fanciful notion but a physiological fact. Rather than the one brain found in our head, some physiologists have suggested that we have two brains—the other 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, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. It is a rich and complicated network of neurons and neurochemicals that sense and control events in the digestive tract and remarkably can sense and respond to events in other parts of the body including the brain. Amazingly, the ENS contains over 100 million neurons—more than the spinal cord itself. What’s even more fascinating to note is that researchers have observed a significantly 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.
In addition to an extensive network of neurons, the entire digestive tract is also lined with cells that produce and receive a variety of neuropeptides and neurochemicals, the same sub- stances, 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 that many hormones and chemicals previously thought to exist only in the gut were later found to be active in the brain. These include insulin, cholecystokinin, vasoactive intestinal protein, motilin, gastrin, somatostatin, thyrotropin releasing hormone, neurotensin, secretin, substance P, glucagon, and bombesin.
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 would 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 head. 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 brainpower in the belly, and such power goes largely untapped. You’ve heard the estimates that we use less than 10% of our brain capacity. Well, the same applies for our use of the gut-brains’ potential. “Body wisdom” is not so much as fanciful notion as it is a scientific fact. How did our ancestors know, hundreds of years back, that milk thistle regenerates the liver? How did they know a thousand years before that Gingko biloba nourishes the brain, that ginseng is an adaptogen, or that astragalus stimulates immunity? As far as we can tell, it wasn’t based upon large-scale randomized placebo controlled studies. Perhaps the transparent stomach of the Yellow Emperor was simply a well-educated ENS. While some of us focus on making our abdominals tighter and harder, he was focused on making his smarter.
Clearly, when it comes to food, we are physiologically wired to hear the gut-brain speak its’ mind. Seldom will you see a lion all confused and anxious about whether zebra or caribou would be the best nutritional choice for the evening meal, or if 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.
Of course, inspiring our patients, and ourselves, to eat from a place of informed ENS body wisdom is a whole new and unexplored nutritional frontier. It’s much easier to tell each other what to eat, and what not to eat. Perhaps such dietary prescriptions will always have a necessary and important place in our therapeutic pantheon. And yet, there’s a deep and growing need to liberate ourselves from the kind of nutritional dialogue that divorces eaters from their inner knowing, and from their dignity. What’s good for the Okinawans, the French, the Meditterraneans, the Hunzas, the Paleolithics, or the bikini-clad inhabitants of South Beach isn’t necessarily what’s good for you and I.
So why not take the nugget of wisdom from every new diet, from every expert, and from every ancient system of eating? Don’t they all have at least one important lesson to teach us? Can’t we learn valuable lessons from both the vegetarians and the carnivores? From the diets of our scientists, and our saints? Is it possible for us to let go of the perfect way to eat for everyone, and embrace the vast nourishment needs of every body? We just might discover that there are as many nutritional systems as there are people on the planet.
So let’s continue to discover the cellular mysteries of the body. Let’s continue to identify the nutrients that heal, the foods that nourish, and the chemistry that kills. Let’s make functional foods, nutriceuticals, and standardized botanical concentrates. But let’s also leave lots of room for a hearty meal. For pleasure and relaxed fare. For quality, and not just mass-produced bottom line quantity. Let’s leave as much room for the cake as we do for the carrot juice. Let’s look with as much concern to the soil as we do to the ingredient label on our cereal box. And for those in our charge, let’s look to help them gain life before we coax them to lose weight.
So where are we as nutritional healers and scientists? Indeed, as we observe the terrain called “the science of eating,” we can see that it does not occupy a sanctified space in any of our hallowed institutions. It has no official home. It has no recognized heroes. It has no hall of fame. In our millennium, it’s more like a vast, loud, colorful carnival. And at this carnival is an infinite assortment of characters—some dressed in experts clothes, others garbed liked high-flying performers. Not such a bad place for a budding science. And in the midst of all the pedestrians and performers, the activity, the voices, and the swirling of life, there’s somehow room under the tent for everyone.
Excerpted from a guest editorial I wrote for the unique and prestigious research journal – Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2018