Follow Your Gut

Trusting your instincts—and your body.

Posted Mar 11, 2019

There I sat, two hours after outpatient surgery, completely dressed. No IV. No blood-pressure cuff. Just waiting. Why? My doctor had asked me to. He wanted someone to pick me up. A reasonable request, if I had any family in the area. But I didn’t. My home (and my people) were hundreds of miles away. I had discussed this with hospital staff the week before and was told it would be acceptable for a nurse to accompany me to an Uber. As long as I wasn’t driving, or had any plans to drive that day, it would not be an issue. Unfortunately, my doctor decided (at the last minute) that plan was not okay with him. With no one there to help me advocate, I was in a bit of a pickle. Except, I wasn’t exactly alone. My gut was with me, too.

Though clearly willing to go to great lengths for good health care, that in no way meant I’d actually get it. Being ready to do whatever it takes will always give you the edge in survival, but you must also be prepared for the inevitable speed bump—which is nowhere near as easy (or convenient) to deal with as booking a cheap flight online.

While unattended in the recovery area, misery crept in along the periphery of my discomfort and pain. My doctor had pulled a proverbial bait-and-switch. No, I wasn’t happy about that, but a former student (who I had not seen in a decade) very kindly agreed to come get me after work—five hours after leaving the operating room. Five hours is a long time to sit in a chair post-surgery. Even a minor outpatient surgery, like the one I had, requires rest for full recovery. After the first hour in recovery (the hour paid for by insurance), I had been left to my own devices. To be clear, I was no longer receiving any direct health care from any medical professional, which made me wonder why I was still there.

Any more time in “recovery,” and I might not have been able to have left the hospital at all. I hadn’t eaten a proper meal in 14 hours yet wasn’t allowed to bring in food or have food delivered, or, go to the cafeteria. When I asked for an ice pack for the bruising, I was given a latex glove with a finger’s worth of crushed ice. I needed to eat, rest and get a proper ice pack on the surgical site. All of that was possible just a few miles away, where I was spending the night before flying home the next day. That’s when my gut spoke up. As a result, I did, too.

Our “gut” and our brain communicate on a regular basis thanks to the gut-brain axis—the neural pathways that allow our central nervous system to control things like digestion. But it does more than that. The gut-brain axis can tell us how to respond to our environment. Because the surface of our gastro-intestinal tract is more than 100-times larger than the surface area of our skin, sensory feedback from the gut-brain axis can shape emotional responses, even at the subconscious level.[i]  Such responses affect how we see both threats and opportunities. While it was a great opportunity to have a competent surgeon treat me, the fact that I was not getting proper care after the surgery was feeling more and more like a threat.

Because I wanted to avoid conflict, I was enduring unnecessary discomfort and pain. Maybe some of you can relate. Women are often accused of being too polite to speak up in social situations to avoid conflict…and, it can certainly be true thanks to our increased oxytocin (the hormone responsible for bonding and connecting). But respecting myself, and what my body was telling me, became more important than my aversion to confrontation, thanks to my gut.

My stomach has led me on some incredible adventures. Recently checking myself out of the hospital was one of them. The reason I have survived nearly thirty years of high-grade brain cancer is not because I followed every syllable uttered by my doctors…it’s because I listened to my gut. The caveat? There are always social consequences of following your instincts instead of the people around you. Still, when it comes to your health, listening to your body matters more than almost anything else. Recent research tends to agree.

“You are what you eat,” takes on new meaning in the context of molecular biology (or the study of microorganisms, like bacteria). Our intestine is loaded with microbes to help with digestion. But those microbes do more than just manage our food intake—they can actually affect neural development, not just in the central nervous system along the gut-brain axis, but also in the brain itself.[ii] Such an impact influences how we feel, which in turn influences how we think. And, what we think influences our behavior—how we act (or, don’t act) in any given situation.

It’s important to listen to your body. But it’s also important to listen to sound medical advice, as long as that advice isn’t proving to be harmful. If you find that it is, you need to take proper steps to safely remove yourself from the situation. Anytime we are physically vulnerable—like after surgery—we will feel some level of fear and anxiety. That makes us emotionally vulnerable, too. We become more easily manipulated, or more amenable to doing what we are told without question. And, that can be a real problem. We may not always feel like we have the agency to advocate for ourselves in times of physical and/or emotional weakness, but our gut tells us otherwise. You may want to defer your gut’s advice when sky-diving or heli-skiing—if you didn’t, you’d miss out on some serious fun. But when it comes to any social situation that makes you feel unsafe, listen to your instincts and act accordingly.

In order to “survive anything,” you must be willing to take risks. The biggest obstacles in life are often the social consequences we face after acting on our own behalf. We need people to survive. Finding a community who can help to support our efforts to not only survive but thrive, is integral to beating the odds. That includes finding health care professionals who can recognize individual needs and circumstances. And, family and friends who you may not have seen in a decade, but who are willing to come get you at the drop of a hat when you call.

No one said living longer and stronger was easy. But following your gut will help you to be happier and healthier overall. You'll have fewer regrets, too. 

References

Maniscalco, J. W., and Rinaman L. (2018). Vagal Interoceptive Modulation of Motivated Behavior.  Physiology. https://doi.org/10.1152/physiol.00036.2017

Mayer, Emeran A. (2011). Gut Feelings: The Emerging Biology of Gut-Brain Communication. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 12. 453-66.