Gut Instinct

Centuries of social etiquette and rules have made us more civil.  But we may have sacrificed our ‘gut instinct’ in the process. Here’s how to get it back.

“I knew there was something wrong!” Ever had this experience? Most of us have – this sense of knowing before we ‘know’ – you hesitate at a green light and miss getting hit by a truck; on a whim, you break your no-blind-dates policy and meet your life partner.

This ‘gut instinct’ is very real, and managed by the most vital cranial nerves in our body – the Vagus.

Unlike the other Vegas, what happens in this vagus doesn’t stay there. The vagus nerve is a long meandering bundle of motor and sensory fibres that links the brain stem to the heart, lungs, and gut. It branches out to touch and interact with the liver, spleen, gall bladder, ureter, neck, ears, tongue, and kidneys. It powers up our parasympathetic nervous system and controls unconscious body functions, as well as everything from keeping our heart rate constant and food digestion to breathing and sweating. It plays a major role in fertility issues and orgasms in women.  PS there are two of them.

This vagus is the major emotional highway in our body transporting feelings from our brain to our heart and to our gut – from the enteric nervous system (this ENS is like a major feeder road onto the highway).

Our gut is often referred to as the ‘2nd brain’, due to its intimate connection to the brain via the Vagus.

During the early days of modern medicine, doctors would cut the vagus nerve as a treatment for acid reflux and heartburn. It was believed acid regurgitation was the result of having too much acid in the stomach, and it was known that the vagus nerve influenced the body’s ability to produce stomach acid.  Then they discovered they were wrong –  not only was acid reflux NOT the result of too much acid in the gut, but that patients who had their vagus nerve snipped suffered long-term multiple organ problems.

It’s taken a while but Western medicine now believes this nerve is an overall indicator of our longevity and quality of life.  TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) knew this for centuries. A few key energy meridians reflect the intentional meandering of this vagus nerve. And the idea that the gut and the heart are connected is seen in the notion of the Triple Heater (this article is quite intellectual, but fun reading if you are curious about TCM), and Dan Tian.  

human brain and guts, second brain

The gut and the brain are intimately connected.  Listen to that gut instinct next time it talks.

This is why taking good care of your gut is so important. Not to mention the Vegas, oops, sorry, the Vagus.

Gut problems are epidemic – 10% of Australians suffer from IBS or similar symptoms recurring. As at 2016, 650 million adults are obese worldwide. 39% of adults aged 18 years and over (39% of men and 40% of women) are overweight.  This over-feeding of our gut affects our ability to make great life decisions, stops us sleeping well, with a short, very unhealthy life on the way.

Breakfast for future mother

We know the physical steps for helping our gut instinct – better diet, drink more water, less alcohol, no sugar. We also need to rid ourselves of those biases and experiences that no longer serve us if we wish to serve our heart and our gut better. By removing our internal barriers, we allow our gut instinct to serve us not just as a way to survive, but to thrive.

This is where the vagus nerve kicks in.  

“Like fixing traffic lights at a feeder road, but then not bothering to maintain the highway it leads onto, unless you shape up your vagus nerve, emotionally and mentally, you end up on the road to nowhere” Lee Carsley WanderingYogi.

6 ways to improve your gut instinct

No need to sign up for a long course, read a complicated book. Here are 6 simple fun things you can do to improve your gut instinct:

Buddha smile breathe and go slowly

1. Compassionate meditation – sit silently, think compassionately about others, and repeat positive phrases about friends and family. Shown to overall increase positive emotions like serenity, joy, which improves the vagal function.

It is cold!

2. Take a cold shower – Studies show that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight/flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system increases. Any kind of acute cold exposure including drinking ice-cold water will increase Vagus nerve activation. So easy to do in Singapore!


Boy who gargles

3. Gargling– Another home remedy. Gargling stimulates the muscles of the mouth pallet, which are fired by the Vagus nerve. Improves working memory performance.  You may tear up a bit which is a good sign and if you don’t, keep doing it until you do.  Please gargle with water, mouthwash is really bad for you OK?

Two women singing in the night club

4. Head off to karaoke – Sing that boppy song out loud – Humming, mantra chanting, hymn singing, upbeat energetic singing all increase heart rate variability (HRV), acting like a pump to the Vagus nerve. What an excuse to sing my favourite song out loud, never mind the looks!

Close-up of reflexology

5. Foot Massage– stimulate your vagus nerve by massaging your feet. Foot massages lower your heart rate and blood pressure and activates all energy meridians in the body (kind of like servicing for a car). Plus the next best thing to great sex.

  1. Group practice transition to uttasana

    6. Do Yoga with the ANZA WanderingYogis – It increases vagus nerve activity, tones your parasympathetic system, clears the energy meridians. And it increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in brain. Especially helpful for those who struggle with anxiety or depression.


A shorter version of this article appeared in the June 2018 edition of ANZA Singapore Magazine.
You can join ANZA right here.




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