Trust Your Gut Brain, A City of Jewels
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | November 8, 2021
I had been invited to teach a yoga workshop, and I was certainly honored, but something didn’t feel quite right. I was concerned that the organizers and I had some pretty different ideas about yoga, as well as other things. A good friend gently talked me through… and eventually out of it. “Trust your gut,” she kept reminding me.
The combination of gut feelings and cognitive calculations helped me finally decline the invitation, and I later learned a few other things that affirmed my decision.
Decision making is an often messy combination of feelings, logic, and intuition. Gut feelings are real – and they are an important part of the process. The gut brain axis is the mechanism that connects the gut brain and the head brain, and it sends signals both ways so we have the opportunity to consult both the body and the mind in the process of making good decisions.
One of the gut brain’s main functions is determining whether or not we are in a safe situation and if we aren’t, it prompts us to take action. My gut brain had been telling me to decline an invitation because it didn’t feel like a safe choice.
A healthy gut brain is essential for cognitive functioning, immunity, and energy.
One of the key ways that the gut brain and the head brain communicate is via the vagus nerve. Vagal afferents (parts of the nerve that travel from the periphery up to the brain) tell the brain what’s going on in the gut. The brain responds with chemical messengers to try to maintain homeostasis in the system.
When this system is out of whack (which may happen for a variety of reasons) the gut brain may throw up messages that turn on the stress response, increase fear, anxiety, depression, and/or sap your energy.
The gut is populated by many microorganisms called the microbiota which, altogether, has about 10 times more cells than your whole body. It consists of things like bacteria, fungi, and other little critters who are intimately involved in processes like digestion, inflammation, mood states, immunity, and disease processes. They are continually influencing your gut brain and your head brain.
Some of the bacteria in your microbiota actually train your immune cells. Basically, your gut is like a city, complete with infrastructure (the neurons), a populace, good guys, bad guys, and even a security force.
Incidentally, the yogis called the gut chakra Manipura, which means, “The City of Jewels.” Clearly, some of the microbiota citizens are hard working and excellent at what they do – they’re the jewels of the city. They keep you healthy. But others are kinda nasty and cause problems.
As a baby, I was given many courses of antibiotics for earaches. It was fairly common back in the 1960s to pump kids up with lots of gooey, cotton candy pink amoxicillin for all sorts of reasons. But, as is well understood today, overuse of antibiotics is problematic. It can disturb and weaken a young person’s growing microbiota. (So can delivery by c-section and overuse of antibacterial products BTW).
Fast forward to the nineties when I lived in Asia for a few years. While traveling in Nepal I got very sick.
Once I recovered from that initial exciting week of endless vomiting and diarrhea, my digestion was never quite the same again. I returned to the states and tried to seek help but most of the physicians I saw told me that I was simply stressed out and needed to relax more.
After many years of IBS, I was finally diagnosed with an overgrowth of Blastocystis – which lives peacefully in the intestinal city of many folks in the Indian subcontinent, but can wreak havoc on foreign guts.
I took a couple of courses of another antibiotic called Alina and that seemed to help somewhat, but again, it’s an antibiotic, which can be a problem for the gut.
So, I’ve spent many years trying to re-populate my gut city with more of the bacterial “jewels.”
Luckily I’ve found some great practitioners (western, Chinese, and Ayurvedic) who’ve helped me a lot.
Also, there’s yoga.
What the gut needs, in addition to good food, exercise, and proper treatment for a dysfunctional microbiota, is to learn to relax its tension when appropriate, and to train and get stronger – which includes stoking the agni or fire of digestion and metabolism.
The yogis seem to have understood quite a lot about the city of jewels. They encoded iconography in the third chakra that explain that the energy that governs this area is about developing a strong sense of inner power and using that sense of self-awareness to generate energy for the dharmic journey of the heart.
Many of the first asanas ever recorded – like Matsyenda’s twist, pascimottanasana (seated forward bend), uddiyana bandha, and Mayurasana (peacock) – are about strengthening the gut.
For me, yoga has been an integral part of the journey of healing my inner city of jewels.
Because of the burgeoning knowledge about the gut brain, some researchers are beginning to recommend yoga for gut issues also.
“…mindfulness-based therapy, a comprehensive mind-body program, meditation, mind-body alternative approaches, yoga, and relaxation response-based mind-body interventions have shown to be beneficial for IBD [inflammatory bowel disease] patients.” (Breit, 2018)
I’ve never actually been diagnosed with IBD, but I will extrapolate from this research that yoga and everything else on that list (which all, incidentally, fall under the category of “yoga”) is potentially helpful for various gut issues.
In the same article the author’s claim that “the vagus nerve [is]…an attractive target in treating psychiatric and gastrointestinal disorders.” There is a growing body of research suggesting that yoga is an excellent way to improve the function of the vagus nerve. It makes sense here since the vagus nerve is the primary way that the gut communicates with the brain.
Trusting the gut means trusting the inner city of jewels, which can be a gold mine of self-understanding.
Reference: Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 44. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044