Belly Up

Wellness discourse taps into longstanding associations between intuition and the gut

My most enduring fantasy is that my life is hard because of just one thing. Once that one thing changes — the chiropractor will adjust my spine, the iron supplements will kick in, the therapy will unlock new thinking patterns — my life will be suddenly easy: My gait will loosen, my skin will clear up, my thoughts about the end of the world will get less extreme. People will say, You were doing it like that all along? And I will say, Yes, and now Im better. 

Lately, my TikTok algorithm has been pushing a new miracle cure, by way of the gut health coach. This coach tends to be a thin, pretty white girl — generally her only credentials — who reports having suffered an assortment of everyday ailments (inability to lose weight, constant exhaustion, lack of focus, emotional incontinence, bad skin) before she “fixed her gut.” As she often explains it, the wrong sort of diet can irritate our gut, feeding the bad bacteria and causing the gut to “leak,” in which case things “pass freely in and out of the gut lining into the bloodstream, which can cause a world of chaos in your body,” according to a TikTok by holistic health practitioner @puresoulholistichealth. The trend isn’t limited to one platform. On her personal coaching website, Chelsea Haines — a “Certified Gut Health coach specializing in Health Optimization through Gut Health and the Abundance Mindset” — says “with a healed gut, healing your mind and soul is inevitable.” Her four-week Gut Health Reset course, starting at $697, promises a “comprehensive, inflammatory elimination healing protocol created for you to understand the foods that cause symptoms of allergy, sensitivity, inflammation, or toxicity in your unique body.” It’s recommended for those suffering from abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea, but also for those feeling sluggish, stressed out and anxious, or just vaguely unhealthy.

The digestive process is understood to have an expansive influence over your personality

Nutritionists — the accredited kind — often stitch their TikTok videos to those of gut health coaches to refute them. What you put into your body does matter, of course, and your gut can, in fact, leak, although it’s rare: “The expression ‘leaky gut’ is getting a lot of attention in medical blogs and social media lately, but don’t be surprised if your doctor does not recognize this term,” Dr. Marcelo Campos writes on the Harvard Health Blog. “Leaky gut, also called increased intestinal permeability, is somewhat new and most of the research occurs in basic sciences.” Still, it sounds like a compelling diagnosis. Controlling, or “healing” your insides is a way to inoculate against the chaos of your life — everything could be better, if you start with your gut.

This concern for gut health operates as a nicely rebranded eating disorder — a set of restrictions that tell us what we can and cant consume, in the name of internal “health” that is measured by external markers: thinness, clear skin, radiant mood. The issue of “gut health” reminds me of the concern about slow metabolism” in the late 2010s. Advised by questionable articles and podcasts, many people found themselves requesting niche thyroid tests that doctors dont usually give, desperately trying to find out what was “wrong” with their hormone function — myself included, seeking a miracle cure for being in the body I was in.

Many wellness trends are founded on dietary efforts. In many cases, one significant change — be it the addition of a vitamin, the elimination of a pernicious ingredient, or a prescribed nutritional regimen — is promised as a fix for “everything.” But the concept of gut health reaches further than the fad diet or the juice cleanse. Instead of simply regulating what goes into our bodies, it suggests that we are responsible for first cultivating an environment within our bodies for optimal processing. The horizon of responsibility increases, from consumption to digestion; an unconscious process becomes a site of regulation, aided by an ever-growing, and largely unregulated market of supplements (probiotic, prebiotic, collagen, greens powder, magnesium, vitamin D). The digestive process is understood to have an expansive influence over your personality. “Healing” your gut, like speeding up your metabolism, promises energy (no more fatigue!), focus (no more brain fog!), and the happy achievement of your desires (no more working out for nothing!), optimizing the life you have already. As a bonus, your body will “improve,” too.

Gut health may be a relative recent concern, but gut metaphors have longstanding cultural resonances. The “gut feeling” stands for instinct, both in colloquial usage and in personality models like the Enneagram, which sorts its nine types into three elements (triads”) to explain habitual responses: the heart triad (feeling), the head triad (thinking), and the gut triad (instinct). In the 17th century, Flemish philosopher, physician, and chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont theorized that the soul was contained in the stomach. In his book Oriatrike, or, Physick Refined, translated into English in 1662, he wrote: At length this befell me (which never at another time) that I felt that I did understand, conceive, favor, or imagine nothing in the head, according to my accustomed manner at other times; but I perceived (with admiration) manifestly, clearly, discursively, and constantly, that that whole office was executed in the Midriffs, and displayed about the mouth of the Stomach.” 

The gut’s “messages” suggest a short feedback loop between reality and perception. The gut knows without having to think

Though his contemporaries generally rejected his hypothesis, van Helmont’s work articulated a common belief in an instinct that was legible through the stomach. “In contrast to the leading medical thinkers of his time,” writes scholar Michael Walkden, “many of whom were turning toward detailed anatomical studies and mathematical concepts to seek explanations for physical phenomena, van Helmont’s theory depended upon appeals to human experiences that could be difficult or even impossible to articulate: ‘If a gun sends forth a noise unexpectedly,’ he observed, ‘a timorous person, in a sudden terror, feels the token of fear in the mouth of his stomach.’” The gut’s “messages” can seem more immediate — hence “visceral” — than those we receive from our brains, which makes them seem more reliable: It suggests a shortened feedback loop between reality and perception. The gut knows without having to think about it. 

Walkden notes that “van Helmont’s theory has no connection to modern scientific research,” but the human gut has met with increasing scientific interest over the recent decades. As Nitin K. Ahuja has noted, the microbiome has been a preoccupation of popular science in recent years, with the publication of books like Robynne Chutkan’s The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body From the Inside Out and Justin and Erica Sonnenburg’s The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood and Your Long-Term Health. Ahuja writes, “These handbooks are particularly attentive to microorganisms located in our gastrointestinal tracts as arbiters of individual wellness.” As Natasha Boyd writes in a recent essay for the Drift, “broader scientific interest in the gut-microbiota-brain axis developed as recently as 2004,” with a study linking weak microbiomes with stress responses in mice. “It turns out that the microbial life residing in the gut is not only crucial for digestion, but for the regulation of brain chemistry and the function of neural systems associated with anxiety and memory function alike.”

Last year, Alessio Fasano, Harvard professor and chair of pediatric gastroenterology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Susie Flaherty, director of communications at the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment, published Gut Feelings: The Microbiome and Our Health, which advocates for treatments that account for the individual and their distinct microbiome; a recommendation that seems to give credence to the idea of the gut as the seat of the individual soul, each one infinitely complex and uniquely composed. Fasano and Flaherty compare the gut to a “parallel civilization,” writing that the incredible ecosystem that we call the human microbiome is the latest frontier. We have been looking for new civilizations far, far away, while the most fascinating, complex, and sophisticated civilization ever discovered has been living within us all this time; we just didnt appreciate it… Now that we have discovered this new universe, we have the opportunity to learn more about our cohabitants and to establish a friendlier line of communication.” 

The mystery of these feelings gives them a certain credibility: They seem to come from a deeper authority

The language of colonization is striking here: Knowledge yields control; gut processes need to be understood in order to be regulated. Likewise, many biotech startups are devoted to the gut and its bacterial composition. Vedanta Biosciences, Inc., for instance, is working on “a new class of drugs to modulate the human microbiome,” which is “pioneering rational design of drugs made of defined consortia of bacteria that are essential dwellers of the gut ecosystem.” The gut is previously uncharted territory where science and pseudoscience alike can thrive.

Science has discovered links between mental illness and food, as well as treatment that begins with the microbiome. “Definitely the animal data suggest that bacteria can have profound effects on behavior and brain biochemistry, probably through multiple pathways,” gastroenterologist Premysl Bercik is quoted in Monitor on Psychology’s 2012 issue on “Gut Feelings.” But as the scientific fascination with our guts is adopted by wellness entrepreneurs, this link is once again reduced to a matter of intuition (science may be irrelevant to the sort of coaching advertised) and abstracted into consumer responsibility. Consumers are “empowered” to manage a process once considered natural and automatic. The metaphor of “gut health” suggests an ever-increasing attention and responsibility to control our bodies — and from there, our instincts, which actually require a great deal of forethought, discernment, cultivation, and eventually, products to buy.

The gut feeling has become largely synonymous with a sort of embodied clarity that is generally occluded to the conscious mind. Who knows why we choose to rent one apartment but not another, or leave a party feeling as though an interaction was “off”? The mysteriousness of these feelings gives them a certain credibility: They seem to come from a deeper authority than we can access in conscious life, one that operates with a secretive autonomy but which, like other bodily functions, can be improved with the right regimen. This makes them easier to exploit. Our ambivalent relationship to the “gut feeling” extends to the guts themselves — we want to know they’re working, without knowing too much about how. This provides an in for health coaches and other salespeople whose confidence is likely more effective than their advice. The “gut feeling” traffics in its own unintelligibility.

Ive always felt estranged from my gut, never the type who had reliable appetites or feelings for things. My first instinct is usually wrong, my first impressions largely incorrect — this is how I have dated terrible men, gotten hit by cars, ended up in a literature PhD program. The gut and its mystical powers elude me: It fails as a center of instinct, fails to key me into what is right or wrong. The myth of the “healed gut” promises to right the unconscious processes to which we are subject, while increasing our sense of responsibility for their maintenance. The rewards are considerable: To fix your gut is to improve not only your digestion, but your life as a whole. It sounds appealing, but it feels off. 

Bekah Waalkes is a PhD candidate and writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.