Did you know that people used to say “I have bowels for you” if they empathized with your situation?
It most likely seems quite strange.
But think about all the bowel-related sayings we still have in today’s vernacular. You can have a “gut feeling”. A “gut reaction” to something. “Gut instinct”. Well-meaning people tell you to “trust your gut”, and they don’t mean “Have faith that your food will be digested without conscious effort on your part”. You may also be told to “follow” or “listen to” your gut. Taken literally, each of these statements sounds vaguely ridiculous, yet we bandy these statements about constantly without much thought, just a deep (gut?) knowledge that they make sense.
Cultures throughout history have shown the gut to be an important emotional center, from the Humor system of the ancient Greeks (with black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood corresponding to the four temperaments) to traditional Hindu Ayurvedic medicine, which has been practiced since prehistoric times and continues to thrive and spread across the globe. Ayurveda is based on “our ability to digest everything we take in from the environment…not only tangible substances like food and drink, but also our experiences, emotions, and the impressions we take in… Agni is the Sanskrit term for the ‘digestive fire’ that breaks down the food and other things that we ingest from the environment, assimilating what is useful, and eliminating the rest” (Sheila Patel, MD).
Today, Western culture is exploring the powerful nature of the gut as well. Science has dubbed the gut “the second brain” following the discovery that the gut actually contains neural tissue just like the stuff upstairs. And not just a little bit– “there are over 100 million of these [brain] cells in your gut, as many as there are in the head of a cat”(bbc.com). An odd comparison, perhaps, but the point is clear: we can, and do, actually think with our guts.
How does all this relate to anxiety? Well, though the gut isn’t responsible for conscious thought, it does seem to play a major role in mood and instinct. The gut has a direct line of communication to the brain via the vagus nerve, which allows for physical “emotional” sensations like butterflies in your stomach. This also helps to explain stress-related digestive problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Recent studies seem to support the notion that treating your gut well may positively impact mood– studies using prebiotics (food for the “good” bacteria in your gut) and probiotics (certain strains of “good” bacteria) on both mice and humans have shown positive results, though more research is necessary before scientists will be convinced that the results are conclusive. Curious? Read more about it here:
And finally, the incredible RadioLab podcast that inspired this post!