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Health

Gut feelings: is there really such a thing as ‘gut instinct’?

Our gut plays an important role in breaking down food and absorbing nutrients – but can it help us navigate the world, too? Here’s what an expert has to say about the existence of so-called ‘gut feelings’.

The last couple of years have seen a massive increase in the number of people talking about gut health. From recipes designed to keep your gut happy to a growing awareness about conditions such as microscopic colitis, there’s been an influx of new advice designed to help us take care of our insides.

On TikTok, in particular, there’s been a lot of interest in the gut-brain axis – aka, the physical and chemical connections that link the two areas of the body – and the role it plays in our mental health. But despite a growing amount of research into the impact our gut can have on our mental wellbeing, there’s one aspect of this connection which remains under-discussed – whether there’s really such a thing as a ‘gut feeling’.  

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Also referred to as ‘gut instinct’, the idea that we can ‘feel’ things with our gut is nothing new, but it’s never really been backed up by science. However, thanks to a growing number of studies looking into the phenomenon, we’re getting closer to understanding what this instinctual feeling really is and where it comes from – and it’s got a lot to do with a key part of the gut-brain axis called the vagus nerve.

“The gut and brain axis carries information in a bidirectional manner via the vagus nerve,” explains Anne-Sophie Fluri, a neuroscientist and head of mindfulness at MindLabs. “The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve which travels from the brain, through the body and to the abdomen, and the bidirectional relationship means that just as the brain sends information to the gut, the gut sends information to the brain.” 

An outline of a brain made out of flowers
The vagus nerve connects the brain to the gut.

Thanks to this connection, Fluri explains, the gut has the potential to play a role in the processes the brain is responsible for, such as decision making. However, because the gut has a ‘mind of its own’ (in the sense that it does things without the brain’s direction, such as digesting food), the messages it is sending may feel instinctual because we are able to act upon them without rationalising or overthinking them – which, Fluri adds, is something our brains have a tendency to do.

“Given the vast branching and intersecting of nerve systems through the body, heart, gut and brain, it makes sense that decision making is not solely governed by the brain, and that information from the body is key in this process,” Fluri says.

“In many philosophies, perception through the five globally accepted senses is seen as a ‘true way of knowing’. We can see, smell, hear, taste or touch things that might be toxic or dangerous, and understand consciously to avoid these. At the moment we still refer to this inner knowing as a sort of superstitious ‘sixth sense’, but in future I believe we’ll come to accept there are more than five senses, and the sense of knowing through our ‘gut feeling’ will likely be the first addition to be widely accepted.”    

While some of the science surrounding the existence of ‘gut feelings’ is yet to be finalised, it’s clear that our bodies have the potential to play an important role in helping us navigate the world. So, how can you make sure you’re in touch with these inner messages?

According to Fluri, the first step is making sure you’re looking after your gut. “If you want to rely on your gut feelings, eating according to your personal dietary requirements will help make sure that any ‘bad’ feelings and low levels of energy are not simply due to inflammation or an unbalanced microbiome. 

“You can start by becoming more mindful about what you eat, and noticing how your body responds to certain foods. If you have access, getting an intolerance test is a good idea too.” 

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Once you’ve done this, engaging in some ‘embodiment practices’ will help you feel more in touch with what’s going on. “Meditation and movement-based meditations such as yoga and Qigong can help you become more aware of intuitive signalling from your body,” Fluri explains.

“If you need inspiration on how to do this, we have a class by Gill on the MindLabs app, a mindful body scan, which is designed to help train you to be attentive to your body, and cultivate a deeper sense of connection with it.” 

So, there you have it. While trusting your gut feelings to make every decision might not be a good idea, learning to listen to your body can certainly help you to feel more grounded and in control – and what’s not to love about that? 

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Images: Getty