How Useful is Your Gut?

When presented with a choice, many people may experience a ‘gut feeling’, and it is at this point whether we choose to follow that feeling or make a logical decision using our brain. Many of us will choose to utilise the power of our brain and take the logical route, and why not? Why should we let our gut make important decisions for us? Where does this feeling even come from? Furthermore, what are we actually experiencing when we get this feeling?

What if I were to tell you that we all have, what scientists have nicknamed, a ‘second brain’ in our gut? Yes, we all have masses of neural tissue filled with important neurotransmitters embedded within the lining of our intestines. Technically, this ‘second brain’ is known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), and astonishingly it contains some 100 million neurons, which is more than the Peripheral Nervous System and the spinal cord. The ENS can control gut behaviour independently of the brain. Simply, the gut has its own senses and reflexes.

These neurons found in the gut communicate with the brain via the Vagus Nerve (VN) and the brain can also send signals back to the gut, creating a feedback loop. The VN is the longest out of 12 cranial nerves. It extends from the brainstem and all the way down to the abdomen, via many of the major organs including the heart and lungs. Interestingly, 90 percent of the fibres in the VN were found to carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around.

Why does our gut need to communicate with our brain? Our second brain informs our state of mind in other more obscure ways. For example, feeling butterflies in the stomach is signalling that we are under physiological stress (all to do with our flight or fight response) and these feelings start in the gut only to tell our brain, not the other way around. Another example, stomach pains seem to affect one’s mood, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the gut to the brain above. Furthermore, electrical stimulation of the VN, noted as a useful treatment for depression, may be able to mimic these signals and therefore taking a step forward in mood disorder treatments.

While on the subject of depression treatments, depression medicine developed to target the brain may unintentionally impact the gut. The ENS uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and approximately 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is found to be in the gut. Serotonin is responsible for maintaining mood balance and social behaviour. Not only does our gut digest food, but it also plays a vital role in the maintenance of our moods, emotions and social interactions.

Many believe that rational decisions cannot be made if emotions are involved, but emotion and reason are actually deeply interrelated. If you are going to make a rational decision, you need to have first done prior accurate emotional processing. If you have done such processing, then your emotions can accelerate your decision making in the form of intuitions, hunches and gut feelings. Basically, when presented with a choice, difficult decision, or a hostile situation, and although we may not consciously remember, our brain would have stored these memories on our behalf without our knowledge. In the future, when we are presented with the same or similar situations, our gut has the capacity to tap into our brain’s memory bank (via the VN) and utilise these past experiences and make us feel drawn to a certain answer. So, technically going with our gut feeling is not guess work, but rather unconscious processing.

To sum up:

  • We have a second brain in our gut
  • Our ‘gut brain’ communicates with our primary brain via the Vagus Nerve
  • Majority of information is transferred from the gut to the brain, not the other way around
  • The gut has the ability to control moods, emotions and social behaviours
  • Emotion and reason are interrelated
  • The gut can access the brain’s memory bank and use past experiences to signal us for a preferred situation, without us knowing

I would argue our gut is very useful indeed.

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Depression in Sport

As we commemorate the 3 year anniversary of Gary Speed’s death, we are reminded of the stark realities associated with depression. Whilst football still has a long way to go before tackling the stigma of mental health issues, the untimely death of Speed has brought about active change in tackling one of football’s biggest taboo subjects. Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed a fluctuation in footballers openly sharing their battle with depression; Lee Hendrie (former Aston Villa midfielder), Leon MacKenzie (former Norwich striker), Stan Collymore (former Liverpool striker), Paul Gascoigne (former England midfielder), Neil Lennon (Celtic FC manager). The Daily Telegraph reported that over a quarter of footballers suffer from depression, with ex-professionals forming the majority of that statistic. Sporting Chance clinic received phone calls from 10 footballers after the death of Gary Speed.

However, depression is not just a football-centric phenomenon. Sportsmen and women are perceived to be placed on a pedestal, immune from the grips of depression, however, they too are humans and victims to this oppressive mental health issue. Countless athletes have battled and continue to battle their way through depression; Dame Kelly Holmes, Iwan Thomas, Freddie Flintoff, Markus Trescothick, Frank Bruno, Ian Thorpe to name a few.

So what factors contribute to depression in professional athletes?

Whilst exercise is commonly associated with the release of positive endorphins in to the system, the conventions of professional sport can be detrimental to the human mind. Confinements of victory and defeat, the bitterness of injury, the pressure to retain/regain position on the team, concerns over ability to perform, internal/external pressures and sacrifices, and the relentless spotlight of the media can very often lead to a breaking point in mental resilience.

As previously mentioned, former professional athletes are increasingly predisposed to suffering with depression. This can be the outcome from a variety of factors; extreme change in environment (from adrenaline fuelled competition to an empty void and loss of routine), loss of identity, cessation of elite demands, and biological factors (significant decrease in serotonin levels).

Tackling depression in sport.

The death of German goalkeeper, Robert Enke, who committed suicide in 2009 after losing his battle against depression, sparked the creation of the Robert Enke Foundation, which provides 24 hour support to players who are experiencing mental health issues. Not only this, the PFA released a 36 page document about depression to ex-footballers after the death of Gary Speed in order to provide additional support and advice.

Other forms of support can be found in a variety of places. Utilizing your expertise in your sporting area, such as coaching and a supervisory role can help to alleviate an onset of depression. Consulting a sport psychologist is also a very good and specific route to apply techniques (check out our website to see a range of services that we can offer you; www.mindinsport.com ).

At this point, it would seem apt to quote comedian Jason Manford as he commemorated Robin Williams, in saying “The world needs you even if you don’t think it does. I promise, we need you here, now.”

Samaritans – 08457 90 90 90