I thought a provocative title might help. Stein, in his book on writing, notes that titles and first sentences and first paragraphs of any writing are critical to arousing the restless reader. And when you think about it, arousal is important. “Arousal is nature’s stimulus for the propagation of the human race.” Unaroused, humanity will end up extinct.
But this is not simply about getting one’s attention. It is a fitting description of a book that I have just finished by Giula Enders, entitled Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ. A lot of the book is about the stuff that passes through our upper and lower intestines.
Her first chapter is titled “How Does Pooping Work?” Later, she gives some amazing facts about feces. And while you may be put off by the subject, and about to end reading about such unpleasantries, this German scientist makes a convincing argument that our gut is at the core of who we are. It is our largest sensory organ, and its signals to the brain have a significant impact on our well-being. Experience tells me this.
For much of my early life, I had serious “gut” issues, issues that once sent me to the hospital. Non-stop vomiting was a telling sign. In seminary, a nervous stomach made me cringe at the prospect of sitting in a class surrounded by other people. I always staked a claim on the back seat. It became a mind game. I needed to know I could make a quick getaway. I once sought medical help, but all I got was a prescription for pills.
Stress only compounded the problem. And most pastors know that ministry is a high stress/low stroke environment. Every Sunday, one faces the overwhelming terror of speaking for God. And who knows what that unsigned note is saying? Better have a healthy gut. But most pastors I have observed are not so healthy.
So what did I learn from Enders? Here are my ten takeaways—
1-Matters as simple as posture make a difference. Most of the world is far more advanced when it comes to the proper position for emptying waste (I’m trying to say this carefully). There’s a reason hemorrhoids, digestive diseases, and constipation is much more common in our culture.
2-Brushing your teeth at night is not just about fighting cavities. It reduces the bacteria that would otherwise head south to the colon to join forces with the enemy and party all night.
3-Sugar is the only substance our body can turn into fat with little effort (but then, we knew this).
4-The consistency of feces is classified into seven groups, and each tells us something important. I will leave it at that.
5-Foods need to be digested in peace. Constant snacking keeps everything disrupted. This is why 4-5 hours between meals is necessary. The body also wants to recover the fluids it loaned out to the digestive system (hence the advice—never make a decision on a full stomach. Wait until the brain recovers its necessary cells).
6-Vomiting is often our friend. It is a sign our brain and gut are willing to sacrifice to the ultimate extreme to protect us from toxins. It may also be a sign of undue stress, as the gut reacts to upsetting situations by ridding itself of food to be more available to the brain.
7-Speaking of stress, the mealtime should be a stress-free zone. Stress activates nerves that inhibit the digestive process, impeding the amount of energy we can gain from our food. Fighting at the table can have serious consequences
8-Our nerves have a lot to do with constipation. When our schedule is changed (as in traveling), or we eat strange foods, the nerves of the gut can get confused and put the brakes on. Time for some flax, chia seeds, and bran.
9-It’s critical the brain and gut cooperate. 90% of the communication is from the gut to the brain. A gut that does not feel good can affect our mood and increase our anxiety, while a well-nourished gut can discreetly improve our sense of well being. (There is something to the saying—you are what you eat).
10-There are good microbes and bad ones. Salmonellae are the most common bad guys (which love to hang out in poultry products). But some bacteria can be good, interacting with our body to protect it (the kind found in yogurt). This is why antibiotics are not always good—they kill both the bad and the good. They are reliable killers of dangerous pathogens, but the senseless use (like taking for the common cold) can be more harmful than good.
If only I had read this years ago. The book does prompt this final word of advice—
“If you are about to make an important decision, and you are going with your gut, make sure it is a healthy gut!”