‘She’s got guts’, ‘butterflies in the stomach’, ‘gutsy move’, ‘how gutless’ -a myriad of terms in our common vernacular that represent feelings, sensations and even personal characteristics. Take a look at the terms and recognise the common theme – the gut. Yes, that body part common to us all, quintessential for survival and ultimately, the nutrition extractor and thus energy provider fueling our existence. Clearly the gut is kind of a big deal, and I suggest that it’s health is more sweeping than merely determining whether we suffer from diarrhea or constipation.
For the last couple of weeks I haven’t felt ‘myself’. I had recovered from a super annoying cold only to be hit with a bout of ridiculously uncomfortable gastro. While the projectile vomit only lasted the day, the rear sprinkler (apologies for any visuals) persisted throughout the week. As you can imagine, I suffered an abundance of physical discomfort and training was not ideal. Experiencing significant dehydration, my ears felt as if the eardrums had popped and my body was not keen on releasing moisture to sweat. My runs and gym sessions became slightly torturous but lo and behold, I survived and I’m here to tell the tale.
Accompanying the physical symptoms was a psychological uncertainty, a quality of not ‘feeling myself’. I generally have a pretty strong sense of personal identity and tend to maintain a relatively stable mental state (although some may object). However, with a dodgy tummy, my mind felt reciprocally frazzled. I became quite down, my daily tasks, training sessions, accomplishments not really creating their usual sense of satisfaction. No matter how ideal the day panned out from an objective perspective, I just couldn’t attain the usual feelings of contentment.
I am relieved to say that this state has finally passed, which allows me to reflect on the source of this temporary dissonance. My conclusion – it’s the gut. Let’s put a few things into perspective, there are one hundred trillion organisms that reside in our gut, with ten times more bacteria than any other body part. Yep, the gut is a haven for the proliferation of living creatures that survive in a symbiotic relationship. So, the proliferation of one species over another leads to a very different chemical and therefore hormonal state. We’ve heard the terms good bacteria and bad bacteria. Most of us recognise that yogurt is a viable source of the former and germy surfaces harbor the latter. Our ever increasing trend to be super healthy leads us toward products such as kefir, sauerkraut and other pickled produce touted to be a superior source of those gold standard bacteria. Essentially, the foundation of our entire medical world lies on the wise words of Hippocrates: “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”. Extrapolating this further, if food feeds the bacteria in our gut, then maybe Hippocrates recognised that we indeed are a reflection of what proliferates in our stomachs.
I am not suggesting that gut dysfunction is the source of all our woes, clearly genetic diseases exist, a broken arm isn’t exactly caused by flatulence, and a healthy gut won’t do much to save one sustaining injuries from falling off a horse. However, what a synchronised, functioning gut will do is increase our rate of healing by creating a prime environment for nutrient absorption, ad well as potentially deescalate symptoms associated with genetic disease by removing negative epigenetic factors. All in all, the gut bears massive influence over our entire being.
Delving deeper, I actually believe the gut plays a vital role in personality development; our gut flora can determine who we are. Feeling under the weather, my stomach rumbling, heaving it’s contents out my mouth, unable to hold onto the nutrients provided, lead to a questioning of my entire being. It’s a bit dramatic, I know, but it’s the truth. I wasn’t sure who Joanna was anymore, what do I represent, where am I going in life, why does the world suddenly seem so bleak? I was in a state of total flux, and for as long as my stomach woes persisted, the psychological battle wouldn’t abate. Fortuitously, as the belly healed, the mind refocused and perspective returned. Hell, what a ride, an educational experience. The experience gave me a taste of the turmoil one encounters when hit with a psychological disease. The foundations of self are rocked, identity is questioned, life is contemplated and unfortunately, oftentimes deemed unworthy to embrace.
Maybe I’m being dramatic, but as someone who requires a sense of consistency to feel in sync, this anomalous state was deeply disturbing. To be honest, it bore memories of times when I was dealing with an eating disorder, a period when my gut and I were in a state of war. Thankfully that era is over and it has left me with an utter appreciation of my body as well as a fundamental tenet of taking care of this physical vessel. During my warring years, my stomach was forever deprived, bloated, in pain, and nutrient depleted. The internal environment was in disarray and no matter what concerns my close family and friends voiced, my mind was set on perpetuating the unhealthy eating habits. It was a self deprecating cycle, the less I ate, the more my gut suffered, the more it perpetuated the psychological decline, the less I ate – on and on the pattern spiralled, closer and closer toward that black hole.
But as one element changed (diet, specifically adding sufficient, calorie packed nutrients), the mind began to release it’s strong hold of the pointless, destructive need to restrict; it relented battling the body. Was it a case of the ‘good bacteria’ reigning supreme, conquering the poison emitted by the evil germs? My sensation of barely surviving each day transformed to embracing the blessings of simplicity, merely waking up without debilitating bodily cramps brought an indescribable sense of satisfaction, a reason to pursue the journey of recovery. So, when the recent stomach woes hit, the memories of the self sabotaging past surfaced. Thankfully, as the gut healed, the mind did too and now I have returned to my steady, self aware state. But the experience was necessary, it was one of those evils that only later reveals it’s value. I needed the reminder to care for the tummy, to keep nutrition higher if ever in doubt and to appreciate the progress made from the earlier period of self destruction.
My tip, friends, is to always listen to your gut. Whether perceived as a ethereal concept or a nutrient based one, when something doesn’t feel right psychologically or physically, we have the power to remedy it. The gut needs balance, just like our lives do too. Keep the food wholesome, for it is the foundation of your being. Your friends influence your choices, your work colleagues impact on your motivation and output. Your gut flora determines your digestive burden and your diet cultures the gut flora. Environment is key, so keep yours clean. It takes guts to stick to your own premise, but luckily we all have them.