Against the Grain Part 4: Disordered Gut Brains

“Expectations are …” (Yah, you know the drill by now. Thanks, Anne LaMott!) The Grains, the Fruits, the Critters… In the previous blogs in this series, we covered the way our culture has us going against the grain with seasons, with time, and with sleep. Now let’s look at how we go against the literal grains and other foods, and how that affects our ability to read our gut brains.

Comfort Foods/Fun Foods A lot of us, when stressed, are inclined to reach for foods that are less than ideal for the chemical balance of our bodies. We might crave something sweet, or salty, or warm and starchy. We want food to make our upset calm. And it works! At least for a moment. Sometimes a moment feels like enough.

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why?

Prioritizing Jobs Asmentioned in this space previously, the gut brain contains the complex web of data association that determines which chemicals flow through us and when. We know these chemical shifts as emotions.

When we digest food, (particularly food that isn’t ideal for the biome in our gut,) we produce bile. Bile is acid. When the gut is doing its digestion thing, there is a whole lot of acid sloshing around trying to break down our food to pass it on to the next digestive step. It’s also busy feeling that food out to determine if it’s something that should be passed on, or if it should be tossed back up to the previous stage. That’s a lot of work!

Gut Feelings There isn’t a whole lot of energy left over for things like intuition or sifting through complex messages about our current situation. Good thing too! If your gut was busy trying to react to that kind of intricate information, it would likely be too distracted to notice that it just sent something forward that can literally kill you. Survival always comes first in the body’s priority order. If this were not so, you would not be here to read this blog now.

Thank you, gut.

We want the food to give us a break from overwhelming feelings, and it does. Unfortunately though, that also means we have dulled our access to the wisdom our gut would have otherwise delivered. If we eat this way with any kind of repetition,the body spots a patternand says, “Oh, ok! This is what we do!” Now our ability to read the important information from the gut brain is impaired. The more we shut it up, the more entrenched the pattern becomes.

Not Safe Many of us learn to shut our gut brains up when we are children. Most children are more connected to gut brain wisdom than adults. They haven’t yet learned the filters and expectations that help us protectively adapt to our context.

  • When a child senses that a situation isn’t safe and the adults in their lives tell them it is, they learn to stop trusting their gut.
  • When a child senses that someone is angry, hurt, or disappointed, says something to the person and they deny what they are feeling, (sometimes errantly thinking they are somehow “protecting” the child,) the child will often assume they must have been wrong.
  • When a child tells an adult they are feeling this, that or the other thing, and the adult tells them they “shouldn’t” feel that, they learn not only to mistrust their gut brain wisdom, but also to mistrust their ability to label and communicate feelings.

There are a whole lot of children in the throes of this challenge who learn that eating will shut that whole painful mess down. They learn that less-than-healthy foods shut it down faster and more faithfully. They can also learn that eating well beyond their capacity not only dulls the gut brain data, but also puts them in something close to a quasi-coma as the body attempts to process way more food than it is able.

It works to make the confusion and struggle stop, so we keep doing it. And now we have created a pattern, (see above) that offers something that feels like survival. Challenging the pattern at a later date involves trying to convince an overwhelmed and under-equipped child to risk dying. If we have any hope of healing a pattern of using food to shut the gut brain up, we are going to need a conscious way of staying alive that satisfies the terrified kid who is doing all they know to do to manage what feels impossible.

Against the Grain We are asking a vulnerable part of ourselves to go against the grain of societal learning, and to instead trust the grain of our more natural responses. What if we stopped using “comfort foods” to shut our enteric brains (gut brains) up and instead, embraced what they were teaching us? We don’t need more calories in cold times when we move less. We do need comfort. What if we found comfort in ways that don’t require us to get dull to what we are feeling?

We need to know, down to our cells, that it is safe to feel the feelings, that they will not destroy us, and that we can manage them. The only way to do that is to come out of Sympathetic Nervous System dominance. (If this is new to you, click here to learn how.) Once we have the internal permission to feel the feelings, we need to learn how to make sense out of the signals we are getting. We do this with interoception. (If this is new to you,click hereto learn more.)

Food as Medicine In order to do any of that, our guts need to not be hindered by foods that overtax or inflame the system. Every human body is different. “Healthy” for one body can be quite unhealthy for another. (Hint: Any source that tells you there is only one way to be healthy is unreliable on that assumption alone.) Get to know your unique system.

If you’d like help working it out, consider finding an Integrative Nutritionist or a Functional Nutritionist to work with. In the meantime, pay attention to how you feel after eating certain foods, especially those that are considered “inflammatory” and “non-inflammatory.” (Inflammation is a sign that the body is perceiving a threat.)

When the gut is functioning with as few threats as possible, we are much more able to go with the natural grain of a body system that’s designed to help us know and understand through multiple kinds of data. In a future blog I’ll go into more detail about lining up our food choices with the seasons and the region in which we live, in order to further align our lives in a sustainable way that promotes the thinking of the people who lived on this land very well for more than 10,000 years, (before “BiggerBETTER M O R E” pulled everything out of balance.)

“Take what you need. Give what you have. Live in harmony with all.” In an environment of mutuality and respect, remembering “all things in a circle,”

it works!

Expectations If we expect to be awake when our bodies need to be asleep, we are going to have a problem. If we expect

to be outwardly productive when we really need to be inwardly productive, we are going to have a problem. If we expect to be able to comply with a demand that was arbitrarily determined and not based on our natural wiring, we are going to have a problem.

“Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”

As much as we are able, let’s reshape our lives and expectations, strongly considering the ways that we can go against the grain of BiggerBETTER M O R E. Let’s lean hard into the true grain of the world in which we live. As I mentioned at the end of Part 3, you can fight what your hair wants to do, but in the end, hair always wins!

................................................................................................................................ Do you have trouble reading and trusting your gut brain?

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. Let’s see if we can’t figure it out together.