What Do Gut Feelings Mean? Your Gut & Your Brain Are More Connected Than You Think, Experts Say
I try to make a point of listening to my body as much as possible, whether I'm exercising, deciding what to eat for dinner, or even contemplating how to handle a difficult situation, like a big argument with a close friend. So whenever I have a gut feeling about something, that intuition tends to have a pretty significant influence on my decisions. But in reality, what do gut feelings mean? Are they trustworthy, or should you just ignore them? After all, it's hard to deny that these feelings exist, but the real question is whether or not they're actually reliable.
Well, according to Kara Landau, a dietitian and founder of Uplift Food, your gut and your brain are more connected than you might think. But before I get into all of that, let's talk about what exactly your gut even is (other than an inexplicably gross sounding word, IMO). "The gut is a single-cell membrane that spans from your sinuses all the way to your rectum and is the equivalent to the square footage of two tennis courts," says Dr. Zach Bush, a board-certified physician and CEO and founder of RESTORE, a supplement company that enhances brain function through gut health. "Among other things," he tells Elite Daily over email, "it acts as your filter for environmental toxins and contains the vast majority of your immune system. The newest science is telling us that your gut is the epicenter of your health."
Besides physical health, however, your gut can also have major implications for your brain. "Our gut and brain are directly connected via the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in the body and goes from the brainstem to the lower part of your intestines," Landau tells Elite Daily in an email. "Our gut bacteria directly stimulate the neurons that travel through the vagus nerve, and that go to our central nervous system (of which our brain is the biggest part); these ultimately affect our thoughts."
By affecting both your immune and endocrine (i.e. hormonal) systems, Landau explains, those bacteria can have a drastic influence on your mind. In fact, she says, 90 percent of the mood-calming neurotransmitter serotonin is found within your gut.
Along with "psychobiotics," which Landau explains is an emerging science that connects your gut health with your mental health, having a "gut feeling" ties together your brain and your gut. "Intuitive gut feelings are really a result of our brain using its stored memory from previous experiences to predict what will come next, and then feeding this information to our gut," she tells Elite Daily. But figuring out when to act on that funny feeling you get in your stomach can be tricky.
Because intuition relies so heavily on your memories rather than on the present situation, Landau says it's possible that a gut feeling may actually just be responding to factors that aren't completely reliable or accurate in the current dilemma. That doesn't mean you should ignore them, though, she clarifies. Rather, Landau says you should try to weigh these feelings as one factor in an entire process of decision making, meaning it shouldn't be the only factor when assessing a situation or making a decision. "It is worth trying to take into consideration our gut feelings," she tells Elite Daily, "but also assessing a situation using our conscious, analytical mind, too, to then reach a final decision."
It's also important to keep in mind that the gut brain is an intuitive center used in ethical considerations or spiritual choices, says Dr. Bush. "The gut brain is more concerned with survival and material comfort," he explains. "The intuitive perceptions are a refinement of the sensory nerves, which are then relayed to the heart and gut brains for confirmation and actualization."
Along with recognizing that a gut feeling shouldn't be the end-all-be-all in any situation, Landau explains that you can take care of this part of your body by sticking with a gut healthy diet. "That includes prebiotic fibers and resistant starches, such as Barley+ muesli and bars," she says. Removing the possible stressor of a poor diet is one tool that you can use to support a healthy connection between your gut and your brain, Landau explains.
Like any other muscle in your body, intuition is something that can be strengthened, according to research published in the scientific journal Psychological Science. In addition to discovering that unconscious emotional information could boost your accuracy and confidence when making a decision, “another interesting finding in this study is that intuition improved over time, suggesting that the mechanisms of intuition can be improved with practice,” researcher Joel Pearson told the Association for Psychological Science.
Try following your gut feeling in low stakes situations so that, by trial and error, you can begin to figure out when it's leading you in the right direction. Of course, if you're ever trying to decide whether to bake banana bread or not, I have a feeling your gut will tell you to go for it. Baking is always the right direction, if you ask me.