Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Holy Shit, Gut Feelings!

Vagus Nerve

If you're like just about anyone in the world, you're pretty sure you've got a handle on the whole "intuition" thing. You can think logically about your conundrums until the cows come home, but when it really comes down to it, you have to go with your gut. It never seems to let you down.

Okay, now I want you to strap yourself in. We're going for a ride through Wild Speculation Based on Recent Research Land, and the turbulence can get a little bit rough. There are basically two points that you need to take out of this that will completely blow your mind. Or gut. Hopefully just your mind.
Thing you use to shit in
This is as far as I'm going with that joke.

Number one: when you get a "gut feeling," it may actually originate in your gut. As in, you are literally thinking with your stomach and basing your major life decisions on how it's making you feel.

Number two (and this one's the kicker): it may not actually be you doing the thinking. In fact, in a very real way it's not thinking at all, but a general optimism or pessimism, and it's all thanks to these fellas:
Aren't they just charming?

Well, not specifically those guys, but microbiotic organisms that reside in our tummies. Recent research suggests (not conclusively, but suggestively. Like your friend's mom making a few uncomfortably familiar remarks while he's in the bathroom so you're not sure if she's just being friendly or...anyway) that there may be a causal link between the types of bacteria in your gut and how you respond to stressful situations.

So far, all the hard evidence we have relates to mice. Scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario took a group of mice, studied their behaviors, and looked at their poo to see what type of bacteria was there. Because the life of a scientist is a life of glamour.
Men of Science, 1807
It's not all posing for group pencil and wash portraits

Then they started feeding probiotics and antibiotics to different mice and observing how they reacted to the changes. What they found was that, as the tiny ecosystem of their digestive track changed, so did the behavior of each specimen. Aggressive mice attained a Lebowski-esque state of calm, and lazy hippie mice began wailing and gnashing their teeth at the murine condition, taking out their newfound existential distress on their neighbors.

The reason for the connection seems to be a single nerve, shared by mice and humans, called the vagus nerve. It connects with both the stomach and the brain, and when its connection is lost, so is the influence of microbes on mouse behavior.

The implications of this research, if it turns out to be applicable to humans, could be staggering. Mental illnesses ranging from autism to bipolar disorder (and remember, speculation) could be reined in by the research that's currently looking into your stomach. It may actually turn out that the secret to living a calm, happy, and fulfilling life is contained within this:
Bowl of Yogurt
Plus it helps Jamie Lee Curtis to poop regularly. So that's nice.
Holy shit.


  1. After reading What's Eating Your Child?, I'm thoroughly convinced that there is a strong connection between nutritional balance and emotional balance, and not just because you are healthier overall.

    1. That definitely seems to be the direction research is headed. NPR did a whole series on microbes in your belly recently, which is where this topic came from.