“All diseases begin in the gut” “…death sits in the bowels…”
“…bad digestion is the root of all evil….” Hippocrates
Just three pages from now I’ll start discussing some truly fascinating things about no, not the gut, but the heart. Huh? This is a chapter on gut health so what’s going on? You’ll see in a moment how all of this fits nicely together due to the crazy fact that our gut is a brain and we have this weird gut-brain interaction that has much ado about what we eat and other lifestyle characteristics. Well guess what? We have a heart-brain too. Therefore, this is as good as anywhere to introduce to you this family of “brains,” if you will. We have and use several alternate brains at times including the gall bladder (well, sort of), gut and heart. In this chapter I’ll introduce you to some new facts about the heart and its role in cognition that you probably never heard of that will indubitably knock your socks right off your feet. It’s some pretty wild stuff and oh so fascinating.
As for the gut, I decided months ago that I would need a separate chapter that was devoted entirely to the complexities of the gut, its microflora, and the influence it has on the brain and the immune system. This is a new, emerging science that is gaining knowledge exponentially about the primary role the gut plays in human health and disease. Secondly, we are all sitting ducks for an important problem called dysbiosis which can develop from the overuse of antibiotics, stress and eating the wrong foods. The upside down nature of our food supply where toxic, pesticide ridden, high-sugar, dead foods (AKA Industrial Dinners) are cheap, plentiful and convenient is putting the kibosh on our gut health too.
If you were told that schizophrenia can be caused by a dysfunction of the gut microbiome caused by certain food items would you believe me? How about autism? Initially I was pretty amazed when I first read about these strange connections. Sadly it’s only a certain type of schizophrenia and not the entire kit and caboodle of madness. But still, how can normal, bland, foods cause you to go ape-right out of your mind? It’s stunning really that such a potent effect on affect can occur under any dietary circumstance. As for autism it looks as if there really is a connection between worsening of the autistic state and leaky gut which can be a consequence of dysbiosis.
THE YEAR OF THE GUT
I just got off the phone with my buddy Al Stewart explaining to him that within the last year I have learned more about the gut and its importance in human wellness than I have in the last ten years. So I decided to implore a change in Al’s song from The Year of the Cat to The Year of the Gut. I also mentioned that I would exclusively use cat gut strings in my tennis racquet and chromic gut sutures for the many deep, disfiguring, lacerations the kids and I get using our power equipment. At that point they must have had a power outage because the line went dead. Repeated calls produced only a busy signal. I hope he’s OK. Later when the movie is in production I’ll contact Al and see if he could cut a demo with the new lyrics added in. I took the liberty to write a few passages.
This whole Gut-Brain connection, termed the Gut and Psychology Syndrome or GAPS by Dr Campbell-McBride, is for real. When the gut is symbiotic, teaming with the right proportions of beneficial bacteria to detrimental organisms, about 80/20, the patient is normal and healthy. What we keep learning in ever deeper ways is that this correctly proportioned “biome” is absolutely essential for vigorous human existence both physically and mentally. This decade will be the decade of the gut-it doesn’t go with the song sorry- as we learn more and more from new cutting edge microbiological techniques on how absolutely vital this organ is for wellness. GAPS helps explain a host of psychological disorders where diet and the improper micro-floral composition within the bowels affects normal brain activity.
Just think of all of the people that run around all day stressed out over what seems to be little to nothing. Admit it we all have a friend or two like this or perhaps had a friend like this until you had to dump him for driving you nuts. They have anxiety, depression, road rage, or over-react to the slightest alteration in the daily plan. Eliminating Italians, generally laughing it up one minute and crying the next, of which I am one, we are left with the rest of the boring population. My Dad once said to my Mom “What the heck is wrong with you? One minute you are happy joking around and having a great time and the next minute you’re sobbing your eyes out what gives?” My Mom’s classic answer was “I’m Italian you idiot.”
Aside from that rather unique situation, how many of these other folks are on mood altering drugs such as antidepressants? You will be surprised to know that at least 25% of all women in the country are medicated on one of these dangerous drugs. Men are not far behind at 20%. Now imagine if these conditions, and many more, were all related to their diet and lifestyle and how it affects their gut microflora. Studies already done in reform schools and prisons have shown how cheap Industrial Dinners cause aggressiveness among the inhabitants. I’ve mentioned previously when these contemptible foods were replaced with more fresh fruits and veggies and more wholesome meals the aggressiveness went away as easy as trashing your old M-60 army jacket. One particular case was made famous with the school for juvenile delinquents in Appleton, WI. which I discuss elsewhere. We know that food clearly affects behavior. How it does that with each individual disorder remains to be seen but it looks certain that many of our emotions have much to do with our microbiome.
THE GUT FEELING AN ANCIENT WARNING
On a far deeper, subterranean, more primitive level we know that the gut has functions other than just the “ripening and rotting of food” as the ancient Chinese physicians reminded us. For example consider the deep, atavistic response one gets when encountering a survival threat. Something tells you that this guy or situation is wrong or the guy is creepy, your gut feeling is to leave the area as quickly as possible. Heed that warning and you live to tell the tale, ignore it at your own peril. I think most of us could attest to having had that sensation at least once or twice in the past. How we respond to this wisdom is another story.
We all have these gut feelings an instinctual response, when confronted by a threat, or when making complex decisions of great importance. We perhaps call it intuition, a sixth sense, or more colloquially a simple hunch “My gut tells me this is the right decision.” Or “I’m going with my gut on this one.” The gut is another brain complete with neural tissue just like the brain with a two way communication coaxial called the vagus nerve; biologically it shares some of the same tissues as the brain when it developed from an embryo.
THE HEART IS THE BRAIN OF LOVE
While setting down your cigarette and taking a break from watching Hee Haw, did you ever stop to think what a marvelous organ the heart really is? Of course not. In order to properly appreciate the heart as an organ that transcends the western scientific model, and since I spent four years learning Chinese medicine, I’d like to relate what the Ancient Chinese had to say about it. In some ways Chinese medicine was even more sophisticated than Ancient Rome’s. The Romans excelled at making surgical tools. Their surgical instruments were not bested until the 18th century and possibly even later. The Chinese didn’t have as good of a surgical knack but their internal medicine was vastly smarter.
During long periods of Chinese history the ancient Chinese viewed the Heart as the seat of the mind and soul, often seen through the Shen as they termed it. The Shen is hard to describe in western terms but it is a combination of affect, personality and soul-that which is revealed in the eyes-a force of animation. Shen disturbances are mental-emotional disorders. Heart disorders in the Chinese sense come in physical forms like palpitations to problems that we don’t normally associate with the heart such as poor memory. The Ancient Chinese saw the Heart and the Shen both involving elements of the mind and brain.
We know historically that when people are in love it is their hearts that become intertwined as one. We see this in literature throughout the ages. Myths, folk tales and the printed media of past generations tell triumphs of the heart through love poems and stories. “My heart yearns for him.” “She will always be close to my heart,” or “she broke my heart.” Think of the epic love between Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius? We still talk of it as though it happened yesterday. Marcus quite literally gave up his rule of Rome losing an epic battle with his former wife’s brother Octavian. Sadly for them it ended in their suicidal deaths and the probable murder of their 7 combined children, one being Caesar’s only son little Caesarion the last king of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt bequeathed from Alexander the Great. During the crusades a fallen king’s heart, not his head or brain, was carried back to his homeland for burial.
Being deeply in love often makes one’s heart flutter-though not literally I hope. It’s more of a euphoric feeling of “butterflies” but behind the sternum not in the belly. Like a higher-order roller coaster ride for the soul. I have experienced this deep, powerful and intoxicating sentiment (thanks A.H.). It is incomparable, with its strange mixture of neurochemicals reminding you of the certainty of life and that you matter in a deep and fundamental way. It’s unlike any other sensation. She even smelled like cupcakes.
Of course whatever goes up must come down right? At least for me anyway. When things changed I could feel my wounded heart chakra (yes, I’m getting kooky here for a second) sticking outside my chest as if stretched out by some invisible hand. It stayed that way for months. When one wears his heart on his sleeve I wonder if people are trying to describe the out-of-place heart chakra? For me it felt about one foot out of my chest but one can easily imagine it extending further maybe at arms length which is your sleeve. At such a length one couldn’t hide their feelings and may even wish to express them hence wearing your heart on your sleeve or rather exposing your true emotions. I was actually concerned that I might have another heart attack. Did I lose you? Recall that stress is a huge factor in heart attack. In fact, it may be the biggest factor of all. They just don’t have a pill for it so you don’t hear about it from your DIB.
Conversely, you never hear comments like “I have a heart feeling about this” or “she broke my gut.” You can “hate his guts” but “I hate his heart” makes no sense. The heart then has certain emotions tied to it and the gut a different set. We feel those emotions just like any other because the heart really is a brain with nervous elements looking just like brain tissue on the micrographs that I had the good fortune to see. But it goes way beyond the physical proof of such. Below are several tantalizing case studies of heart transplant patients who inherited profoundly different personality traits including musical aptitude and appreciation where none existed before or the case of sudden post-operative craving for beer and chicken nuggets from a vegan. How is this possible? There are many ad hoc explanations thrown about to maintain the reductionist, materialist paradigm but none that I have found convincing. I don’t know how this can be but when a new paradigm emerges in physics it will help to explain the workings of the brain and the heart-brain I hope. It’s there, right in front of us nonetheless, with or without suitable explication.
THE LITTLE BRAIN’S PERSONALITY
This view of the heart as a brain is new to the western world. Research has clearly shown that it functions much like the brain in certain ways. Some scientists call it the little brain. It’s hardly little in performance however.
In an astounding revelation the heart seems to contain memories but something more than just memories, something more like a soul. A paper was published by Paul Pearsall Ph.D. titled: Changes in Heart Transplant Recipients That Parallel the Personalities of Their Donors.
This astonishing paper reveals the heart as not just an organ capable of transferring memory from donor to recipient but also elements of personality. There is the now famous story of a very sensitive and artistic 18 year old boy who felt he would die and donate his heart to save another life. He even wrote a song titled: “Danny, My Heart is Yours.” The recipient was an 18 year old girl named Danielle. She knew her donor on a deep, inexplicable level and referred to him as her “lover.” She instantly recognized the donor’s father and pictures of the donor himself stating “I knew him directly. I would have picked him out anywhere. He’s in me. I know he is in me and he is in love with me. He was always my lover, maybe in another time somewhere.” She could finish the phrases of his songs when first heard and took up guitar when she formerly had no interest in music.
There are scores of other fascinating cases where culinary tastes are transferred, as well as musical, sexual and overall personality traits like becoming more extroverted. There is one case of a very young child receiving a transplant at age 7 months. This child in a very real and disturbing sense became the other child. He recognized both parents and ran up to them calling them Mommy and Daddy-even sleeping with them in bed like his donor used to do:
We stayed with the [recipient family] that night. In the middle of the night, Carter came in and asked to sleep with my husband and me. He cuddled up between us exactly like Jerry did, and we began to cry.
Carter told us not to cry because Jerry said everything was okay. My husband and I, our parents, and those who really knew Jerry have no doubt. Our son’s heart contains much of our son and beats in Carter’s chest. On some level, our son is still alive.
Next week I’ll cover several striking discoveries within cardiology that shows us the heart actually senses things first and then tells the brain about it. I’ll also go over a few cases where the gut feeling saved lives. Until we meet again, Cheers!
 Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. Gary E. R. Schwartz, Ph.D. Linda G. S. Russek, Ph.D. Journal of Near Death Studies, 20(3), Spring 2002 C 2002 Human Sciences Press, Inc .