The science behind why you should trust your gut

Everyone experiences a “gut feeling” from time to time. From decisions as simple as what to have for lunch to far more important matters like accepting a job offer, gut feelings frequently push people to make decisions they otherwise would have avoided.

These visceral, subconscious nudges have been called a variety of names over the years and across different cultures. Intuition, instinct, or foresight, just to name a few. It’s tempting to chalk up these feelings to spiritual, supernatural, or otherworldly origins, but in actuality, gut feelings are a product of the Enteric Nervous System. The ENS is the intricate network of neurons and neurotransmitters located in and around the human gut.

While the primary function of the ENS is to take care of food digestion, a new study from Flinders University took a closer look at the stomach’s nervous system in hopes of better understanding the “gut feeling” phenomenon.

Sure enough, the research team has discovered and identified a specific type of neuron (viscerofugal) found in the gut wall. Why is this neuron so important? It appears to send signals to other neurons located near the spinal cord and brain. 

So, viscerofugal neurons connect our brains and guts, relaying sensory information from within our stomachs up to the brain. 

Imagine you meet a stranger at a party through a mutual friend. The stranger is antsy and keeps looking around the party like he or she is going to make a run for it at a moment’s notice. Now, your mind is too preoccupied with the party itself and your friends to consciously pick up on how strange this new acquaintance is acting. But, on a visceral level, your body does pick up on the strange behavior. Viscerofugal neurons send this “information” to the brain via the spinal cord, tipping off your conscious mind that something is off about this stranger.

Beyond just answering some lingering questions on the origins of gut feelings, these findings also represent a potentially major breakthrough regarding how certain diseases appear to formulate in the stomach before making their way to the brain.

“There is significant interest in how the gut communicates with the brain as a major unresolved issue because of growing evidence that many diseases may first start in the gut and then travel to the brain, an example of which is Parkinson’s Disease,” says lead study author Nick Spencer, a professor at Flinders University.

“The new study has uncovered how viscerofugal neurons provide a pathway so our gut can “sense” what is going on inside the gut wall, then relay this sensory information more dynamically than was previously assumed to other organs, like the spinal cord and brain which influence our decisions, mood and general wellbeing,” he adds.

The study’s authors believe their work could one day lead to new treatment options for diseases like Parkinson’s. On a grander scale, they also say that the ENS may play a larger role in overall human health than most have assumed.

There’s still a lot we don’t understand about the connection between our minds and guts, but these findings go a long way toward closing that gap.

“What is particularly exciting about the gut, is that it is unlike all other internal organs (e.g. heart, liver, bladder) because the gut has its own nervous system, which can function independently of the brain or spinal cord. Understanding how the gut communicates and controls other organs in the body can lead to important breakthroughs for disease treatment and this is an important step in the right direction,” professor Spencer concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Neuroscience.