How Your Gut Feeling Relates to Your Gut Health

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

We've all walked away from situations where we wish we'd listened to our 'gut feeling' - that still, small voice that seems to speak from the depths of our solar plexus to give us guidance that always directs us toward our heart's truest desires. At times, the direction we're being pointed may seem illogical, but looking back we realize there was always a reason for this guidance. 

When you struggle to listen to your gut feeling, it’s often because this feeling is being obstructed by excessive processing in the mind as well as the digestive system.

Understanding the connection between the gut that's related to your digestion and the gut feeling that guides you in the most favorable directions in your life is essential to your well being.

 

Digestion According to Chinese Medicine

In Chinese Medicine, the Spleen and Stomach comprise the Earth element which is said to govern the late Summer and all seasonal transitions. This is why it’s important for us to pay attention to and strengthen these digestive organs during times of transition (seasonal or otherwise) in our lives.

According to Chinese Medicine, the Spleen is mostly responsible for the breakdown and transformation of food to produce Qi energy, blood and fluids. It is also the organ that is most likely to accumulate phlegm or dampness from improper food choices and weakness in its transformation function.

Digestion of food can be impeded by stress and too much consumption of damp or phlegm-producing foods such as dairy, sugar, and processed foods. 

The Spleen is also the organ that governs our thinking process and, because of this, it’s the first organ to be affected by overthinking and being obsessive compulsive.

For this reason, it's common for students who are mentally overstimulated for extended periods of time to develop weak Spleen Qi, or energy. Weakness of the Spleen energy will cause a reduction in mental focus and concentration and create a lower level of energy production in general. This can manifest as fatigue.

Fatigue leads students to grab fast foods and sugar for quick energy, but this energy burns fast. In addition, these types of foods can be toxic and create dampness in the Spleen, thereby weakening the digestive system and creating a vicious loop of low energy and poor decision making with food choices. 

Since students tend to be young adults their tolerance is in general higher than older individuals. However, even these young adults will crash over time with physical symptoms ranging from allergies and asthma, to digestive problems and even fibromyalgia that can manifest as a result of severe Spleen weakness causing muscle pain throughout the body.

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 The Spleen and Stomach Digest Thoughts, Ideas, Emotions, and Food

Your digestive system is not just digesting the coffee and scone you ate for breakfast, but also what the woman at the coffee shop said to you this morning or the argument you had with your spouse, or the earful of stressful news you heard at work. 

The busier the mind, the greater the burden on the Spleen to break down the plethora of thoughts and information you are processing throughout the day.

Metaphorically, the Spleen has to transform this information similarly to the way it does food because the Spleen controls your Yi, your Mind. So what you digest either physically or psychologically will impact your state of mind.

Furthermore, your physical state is impacted by your mental state. For example, excessive stress causes the body to produce cortisol, the primary stress hormone, much of which is actually produced in the gut. Increased cortisol levels lead to the proliferation of an unhealthy microbiome in the gut, which can lead to indigestion, fatigue, insomnia, as well as problems relating to your brain and mental function. 

When you eat while you’re in a meeting you’re putting twice the impact on the Spleen as it not only has to process the food that you’re eating but also all the information from the meeting.

Having your energy diverted to your mental processing inhibits sufficient energy to support your digest. Over time this pattern will cause a serious dysfunction in the digestive system and weaken the Spleen energy. This then leads to common complaints such as fatigue, poor digestion, muscle weakness, and generalized body pain since the Spleen also governs the muscles.

The fact that your mental and digestive processes are so connected makes it clear that your gut health will impact your ability to listen to and follow your gut feeling.

The Gut-Brain Axis Helps Us Understand How Emotions Affect Digestion

Modern research on the gut-brain axis (GBA), which refers to the biochemical signaling that takes place between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system (CNS), affirms the connection between the mind, emotions and the digestive system.

Both clinical and experimental evidence suggest that enteric microbiota has an important impact on GBA, interacting not only locally with intestinal cells and the enteric nervous system (ENS), but also directly with the central nervous system (CNS).

The vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the body, passes through the neck to the abdomen and interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. Evidence indicates that microbiota communication with the brain involves the vagus nerve, which transmits information from the luminal environment to the central nervous system (CNS). The enteric microbiota is distributed in the human gastrointestinal tract and relative abundance and distribution along the intestine is similar among healthy individuals. This microbial community has important metabolic and physiological functions and contributes to homeostasis.

The constant communication and interplay between the gut and the brain has the potential to influence and intersect with sleep both directly and indirectly. Breus (2016) summarizes some of the ways that might occur:

  • Mood. Disruptions and imbalance of gut microbes have been strongly connected to anxiety and depression. This has potentially significant implications for sleep, as both anxiety and depression can trigger or exacerbate sleep disruptions.

  • Stress. Research is also revealing a complicated, two-way relationship between stress and gut health. Stress is an extremely common obstacle to healthy, sufficient sleep.

  • Hormones. The intestinal microbiome produces and releases many of the same neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, melatonin and GABA, which help to regulate mood, and also help to promote sleep.

In sum, the health of the gut impacts the health of the brain and therefore our ability to process information, manage stress, balance our emotions, and digest and assimilate food.

 

Tuning in to Your Gut Feeling

Since so much of your mental, emotional and food processing occurs in the gut, gut health is essential to your overall health.

A healthy microbiome in the gut supports ease in the digestive process, which supports healthy elimination, and results in clarity of mind.

In the same way, the combination of a well-balanced diet, a clear, calm mind and harmonious emotions support the production of healthy microbiome in the gut to support digestive and overall health.

When your body is healthy and your mind is calm, you have the clarity to hear and listen to the still small voice that always provides you with the least resistant path to achieve your goals and dreams.

Healthy digestion thus allows attunement to your instincts and a closer connection to the guidance that's offered by your gut feeling.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Dr. Moafi offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com

How to Allow Yourself to Receive

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

I used to think that to get what I want, I have to strive and work tirelessly. Not until I started to practice Yoga regularly in college did I learn that the opposite is true. The more I practiced, the more I relaxed and the more relaxed I felt the more opportunities came to me. The more I focused on self-cultivation and being still, the less effort I had to make in my pursuits.

In order to receive what we want, we have to let go and be fully present. This means that both the body and mind have to be relaxed, clear and calm. I learned this through both my personal practice and through my training with a number of master Yoga instructors, in particular Erich Schiffmann.

Erich emphasized the power of entering the silence and listening for guidance. The one word I heard repeatedly from Erich was “pause.” He encouraged us to listen inward and taught me that the answer to everything comes in the empty spaces between your thoughts, when your mind is quiet.

Mindfulness-based movement practices such as Yoga, Qi Gong or Tai Chi release physical tension to prepare the body to sit quietly so you can experience a quiet, empty mind that allows you to be fully present.

Only when you’re fully present can you tune in to receive guidance that will allow into your life anything and everything you’ve ever wanted.

To get to the place where you can receive, you first have to create space by letting go.

As a society of achievers, the challenge for many of us is accepting that only through stillness can we align ourselves with anything and everything we want.

As a society of achievers, the challenge for many of us is accepting that only through stillness can we align ourselves with anything and everything we want.

Receiving by Letting Go  

According to Chinese Medicine, the Lungs govern the circulation of oxygen and Qi, or energy. The more deeply we breathe, the more freely this Qi can circulate throughout the body.

Deep breathing practices including Pranayama strengthen the Lungs. In addition, practices such as Yoga asana and Qi Gong, which coordinate breath with movement, unbind tension in the body thereby allowing the Lung Qi to circulate more freely.

As I've mentioned in previous articles, the Lungs are the primary organs that help us to let go. (You can read more about this here and here). As we inhale, we draw in fresh energy and oxygen. With our exhale we release toxins, as well as thoughts that no longer serve us.

By allowing us to take a deep breath, the Lungs anchor us into the present moment.

The Lungs have an important relationship with the Kidneys. As the Lungs draw in Qi through the breath, the Kidneys grasp this Qi and use it to consolidate the fundamental energy of the body. 

The Lungs also play an important role in harmonizing our emotions through their relationship with the Liver. Whereas the Lungs govern the circulation of Qi, it’s the Liver that ensures the smooth flow of this Qi throughout the body. (Learn more about the Liver/Lung relationship here). Stress of any kind can impede this smooth flow and cause mental agitation and even anger. The simple act of taking a few deep breaths helps open the diaphragm to release stagnation in the Liver meridian and the Liver system as a whole, and thus smoothes the flow of Qi to regulate the emotions.

So, feeling better starts with taking deep breaths. 

When you take a deep breath, you become more present. When you're more present, you feel more in alignment. When you're more in alignment, you're able to receive the messages that guide you to what you truly want. 

 

Tools to Fine Tune Your Ability to Receive

Years ago, Erich Schiffmann taught me to wear a stopwatch and set it so that I’d receive a notification on the hour, every hour as a reminder to pause, to breathe and be more present in that moment. I encourage you to try this powerful practice.

As the days go by and you pause every hour—simply by stopping what you’re doing for a moment to take a deep breath—you’ll start to feel a deep sense of calm seep from those moments into nearly every part of your day.

I've attached the video below as a guide for you to practice ujjayi breathing, a simple technique that profoundly calms the mind. You can practice this form of breathing as you pause throughout the day, before bedtime to help you fall asleep, and even integrate it into your exercise regimen.

Ultimately, your mind more than anything blocks your ability to receive what you truly want.

Have you noticed that oftentimes when you grapple with an issue it just seems to get harder? Then the moment you let it go everything seems to fall into place. That’s because once your mind tunes its frequency away from that issue, away from the struggle and negative thinking, it can receive the guidance to handle that situation.

Only when we turn our focus away from the problem can we allow in the solution.

It’s crucial not just to shift the thoughts you think but also to empty the mind, to fully let go, so you can receive messages or inspiration from a higher source.

Inspiration arises only from a receptive, quiet and undistracted mind. It’s not a coincidence that the word inspiration is related to breathing, as it's rooted in the Latin word inspirare, which means 'to breathe upon' and is also related to the word inspire, which means 'to breathe in.' 

Sometimes inspiration, or what we may call ‘gut feelings,’ aren’t logical. You may be guided to do something even when your mind may be telling you otherwise. 

For example, you go to the grocery store and something tells you to buy extra vegetables. You may ignore this because it logically doesn’t make sense—you’ve picked out enough vegetables for dinner. But this gut feeling always makes sense later. You may go home to find that your daughter has brought her friend over for dinner, and this friend happens to be vegetarian.

As you practice quieting your mind so that you can receive guidance in these small situations, you’ll be more tuned in to receive this guidance for more significant situations, like when to quit the job you hate to pursue your dreams.

The process of quieting your mind to become receptive all begins by taking deeper, fuller breaths. Allow yourself to relax more, do less and just be. Only by being present can you allow in all that you’re meant to receive.

Dr. Setareh Moafi shares the importance of deep breathing for your yoga practice and daily life.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga.