Trusting your gut

Guts are having a renaissance. It’s 2021 and it’s now perfectly acceptable to bring them up in conversation. Look in the bookshop window and the shelves are groaning with guts. The gastrointestinal tract is merely a 4.5 metre tube, yet it’s the most densely populated spot on the planet. A place that 100 trillion microbes call home, housing 300 – 1000 different species, which together weigh in at around 2kg. That’s heavier than a brain. Our gut biomes are also rich in genetic information – the human genome has 23,000 genes yet the microbiome has over three million. And, just like snowflakes, no two biomes are the same. 

We’re freighters on the high seas, our ships, of flesh and bone, bulging with cargoes of microorganisms. Free riders, you might think; but these bacteria, yeasts and fungi keep us happy and healthy. They’re vital to our functioning, breaking down food and toxins, creating vitamins and building our immunity. Our guts are busy places. 

“There’s increasing evidence that gut microbiome quality is probably the number one factor that influences your immune system. If you get your diet in order, and you do all the things that are good for your gut microbiome, you will have the optimum immune system.”  Professor Tim Spector on the Zoe app discussing Covid-19 

In the journal Nature, Herb Brody (appropriate name) writes about diseases and how some might be influenced by our microbiome (e.g. cancer, autoimmune diseases, autism spectrum disorder). The microbiome can also interact with drugs and influences their effects, including impacting some mental health conditions.  He writes “collecting microbiome data would allow a ‘deep phenotyping’ approach that could transform drug discovery.”

Amy Fleming continues in the Guardian. By analysing the biome, we may diagnose some brain diseases and mental health problems and treat them with certain types of bacteria. As well as being implicated in mental health “gut microbiome may influence our athleticism, weight, immune function, inflammation, allergies, metabolism and appetite.”

That’s a huge impact from a small bag of microorganisms! The sum is definitely greater than the parts. The view that guts are just a tube is long gone. See how you can boost your own biome here and here.

Guts also loom large in both our thinking and our language – the word is littered throughout English. We can say “my head says go but my gut says stay.” We also “listen to” and “trust” our guts. To indicate courage or bravery we say “it takes a lot of guts to admit that.” A building can be “gutted,” or destroyed by fire. Gut means to extract: to “gut a building” by removing everything, or “gut a fish or animal” and it works in non-human form – “the guts of a machine.” It can also mean destroying something enormous – “gutting the economy.”

We use it in phrases like “we need to sweat our guts out” or “bust a gut.” There’s also “have her guts for garters,” or to “hate someone’s guts.”  We can be forced to “spill our guts” – to reveal vital information. We might get a “punch in the gut” or something can be “gut wrenching.” In British English we can also “feel gutted” – really disappointed. 

We use the word “gut” so widely because it’s been around for so long. If you’ve read this you’ll know I’m keen on Anglo Saxon history and language. Gut first appears in Middle English in the 12th century, from the Old English “guttas.” That’s nine hundred years of playing around with guts. Plenty of time for them to spread their wings, so to speak. This is Merriam-Webster with a lovely history of the word. 

I’ve interviewed 100 people going through change and many of them talk about guts. Shona took many months to “finally have the guts” to ask her employer to reduce her hours. People were surprised when Claire had the guts to leave her job. Jessica was offered a job she really didn’t want. She felt really “gutted” because “it was too good not to take.” Anna took voluntary redundancy but had to keep it quiet. Once her team knew they said, “you must be gutted!” Whilst she requested it, she told them she felt terrified and excited in equal part.  

Martin Visser, Unsplash 

In these conversations gut was used most often in terms of “trusting our guts.” We really want to rely on them, but we end up trusting our brains instead. Even when we know something doesn’t feel right, we revert to rational thinking.

James was a director of a business acquiring a larger organisation. “There was conflict from the get-go – between their management team and us as the acquirers, between the chairman and me and the chairman and the CEO.” The team worked on the acquisition for four years before it got to breaking point. “It was a constant battle. Death by a thousand cuts.” 

James had known it wasn’t right from the start. “The writing was on the wall from early doors. I think it started from a bad position.” So why didn’t he do anything about it? “I don’t think I had the depth of experience to say, ‘for sure hand on heart this is going to go pear-shaped.’ I didn’t have sufficient experience to say, ‘I’ve seen this before, and it’s going to go bad.’” 

James agrees that trusting our guts is a great thing to do, “but to persuade other people based on a gut feeling? That’s more difficult.” So, what advice would he give his younger self? “Be brave, trust your gut. If things aren’t going the way that you want them to either make that change or be brave enough to say, ‘okay, if no-one is willing to make a change then I’m gonna make the change. I’m out.’”

Katerina was focused on promotion at work. “I should have known better and not agreed to playing the system. I really had to play the game and compromise.” Her advice to her younger self? “Stick to your original gut instinct. I get influenced by others and change my behaviour. But my initial assessment is right. So, stick to my guns because I feel I know what’s best for me.”

Natalie agrees. Her advice is “just to listen to your gut instinct a lot more. When I’ve not followed it, things have always gone a bit wrong.” She says focus less on “what you feel you should do, or society thinks you should do, or the easier option. Instead think ‘is this genuinely going to make me happy?’” She thinks happiness is low on the list. “We don’t listen to that internal instinct, that inner voice enough. I’ve ended up down a path I wouldn’t choose if I was back in my early 20s again.”

Others do listen to their guts. Jacqui says “if you’re feeling discomfort at work, it’s generally a reflection that a value is being threatened, tested, challenged. Take a step back and say, ‘okay, what is that gut feeling telling me?’ Labelling it, finding the root cause of it, being able to address it. It’s communicating, instead of letting residual resentment eat away at you. It’s just bringing it to the surface and discussing it.”

Mal uses his gut at work. “I think it’s really important to have congruence. Work on your gut feeling. Is the situation good? Is it bad? How do I feel about it? Often in meetings there’s an unanswered question, or there’s something that’s not being talked about and you get a gut feeling about it.”

Annette’s advice is to listen to your gut and be “less dependent on what other people think about you. If you feel that something is right, just go for it. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Life is more important than work. It sounds corny but don’t work to live.”

Tracey said “be careful who you talk to. It’s very easy to get sucked back into certain things. I’m learning to trust my gut a lot more. Learning to realise that people are concerned for you, but they’re also just concerned, generally. So, the advice they’re giving is heart-felt but not necessarily right for you.”

Alma agrees. “Find your tribe who can be supportive and objective. If I listened to most people, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. Listening to my gut, listening to my values, that was the best sounding board ever. My gut is my best friend now.” Alma says career change is “about you, it’s not about other people. It’s about aligning what you’re doing with your sense of self. There are always things out there that will align with you.” 

I could continue, but my gut reaction is to stop right here. I say let’s pay more attention to our guts. Notice how we feel and focus less on what we think. Our trillions of microbes have been shouting loudly for a while – we just haven’t listened.  If we get out of the way, our guts will happily be our guide.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Whilst you’re here, why not take a look at my latest venture: guest writer on The Room Psy

First photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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