What is a gut feeling and where does it come from?

We’ve all had that deep down feeling that comes right from our bellies that tells us “yes, this is a good thing” or “no, beware”. But exactly how accurate is that and how does it even happen? How does our body know when there’s impending danger?

A new study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, explored whether gut feelings really were generated in the fut.

“Traditionally, scientists have focused on the role of the central nervous system in regulating our moods and behaviours, but a paradigm shift is afoot, with new research revealing a unique role of our gut microbiota in influencing emotion,” writes the paper’s author, M.J. Friedrich, reports Fairfax.

It’s amazing to think that our gut microbiota could be linked to stress and anxiety, but it’s true – more and more research is proving there is a definite connection.

A 2011 study, authored by neuroscientist John Cryan, found that feeding healthy rats a strain of the bacterium Lactobacillus rhamnosus (found in some yoghurts) cheered up anxious and depressed mice.

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Other types of gut bacteria have also been shown to produce “feel good” molecules although there are yet to be full, wide-ranging studies on humans.

“The field is still in its infancy, and there remains healthy scepticism as to whether recent work may have translational potential for treating anxiety and depression in humans,” Friedrich says.

And the secret to whether a gut feeling is accurate comes down to how healthy your gut is, but how can you tell!? Well, researchers are still trying to figure out exactly it means.

“Genetic and environmental factors mean that there may be significant variability in gut composition from person to person,” explains Sarah Dash, from Deakin University’s School of Medicine.

In the same vein, intuition is similar to gut feelings in that we get this overwhelming sense of right or wrong when we approach a situation. We can’t explain it and it feels like it comes from within, although not always that sick feel associated with your gut.

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According to a study by Canada’s University of Alberta, when it comes to working out where the future lies, your unconscious mind is smarter, and more correct, than you thought.

Their study explored how the unconscious mind responds to objects in relation to an individual’s goals and how it continues to influence feelings about these objects once the goals are reached, whether or not the outcome has been successful.

“In the past few years, we recognised that some of [Sigmund] Freud’s ideas on the unconscious mind were, in fact, correct and that a lot of our decision-making and a lot of our feelings are based on things that we’re not really aware of,’ said Alberta School of Business researcher Sarah Moore.

In her and her colleagues’ study, they assessed basic needs like thirst or hunger, and were able to ascertain that the unconscious will evaluate objects and form preferences based on whether the object will help an individual achieve the goal.

For example, if you are thirsty, your unconscious knows, without you even having to consciously think it, that you need water and not a chocolate or some crackers. But once you have quenched your thirst, your unconscious will go back to thinking nothing of the chocolate or crackers’ value.

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When the teams focus turned to longer-term goals, such as getting fit or studying, they found that the unconscious identifies and responds to positively to objects and triggers in the environment that support the person’s goal, but made note that the unconscious deals differently with these objects as it progresses towards long-term goals.

Interestingly, the unconscious mind will continue to positively value objects related to the long-term goals even after a level of success has been achieved. This is because we never truly finish our long-term goals.

The researchers expected the participants who failed at their goal to react negatively to objects related to their test goal, but it was found that failure resulted in a neutral view of the objects.

“You don’t hate the objects related to the goal because that goal is very important to you in the long run”.

More research needs to be done to secure the links between our stomaches and our mental, physical and emotional health, but in the meantime, listen to your gut. As John Cryan, puts it: “Your state of mind might be dependent on your gut”.

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Tell us, do you follow your gut instinct? Or do you prefer to go with your heart?