How Your Body Works: A Day in the Life of Your Gut

One gabby gut shares how a bad day can affect your mood, your immunity, and, yes, your digestion.

By Hugh O'Neill from Reader's Digest Magazine | May 2013

day in the life of your gutMy Gut Instinct

At her desk after lunch, The Body tries to focus on the 53 unread e-mails in her inbox, but I can’t help but distract her with my uneasiness. It makes her realize she’s worried about her ninth grader, Luke. She calls it a gut feeling, and she’s right. Some scientists call me the second brain because I have 100 million nerve cells, called the enteric nervous system (ENS), embedded in my lining. The other brain and I work closely together all day long, passing information through our nerve cells and hormones, essentially playing puppet master over The Body’s mood. When I’m feeling off, I send messages to the other brain that make The Body feel anxious. I make her pay attention to those cues she’s been getting from Luke that all is not well. The brain gets all the credit, but I’m pretty darn smart too. (And by the way, I’m right about Luke: He’s flunking math and doesn’t want to tell The Body.)

Uh-oh. It’s time for that mysterious meeting. Cortisol spikes! Heart rate skyrockets! Blood pressure jumps! I wish I could say I stay calm, but I’m in knots. Then my worst nightmare happens: Office silence is disrupted by a loud, yerping, blerping noise. Yes, it came from me. Hey, you try massaging a jumbo taco platter into mere molecules without a peep! Can’t be done. Thankfully, The Body’s job isn’t in jeopardy; in fact, her boss just wants to thank her for putting in some extra hours last week. She sighs with relief.

As her stress level drops, I go back to digesting that taco properly. Her lunch continues to move out of my stomach and into my small intestine. Actually, there’s nothing small about it. Picture a tube, maybe an inch in diameter, which meanders back and forth through the lower torso for more than 20 feet. Every bit of this vast surface is a transit point for the nutrients I’ve just harvested from lunch. They ooze through my intestine walls into the circulatory system, coursing through 60,000 miles of blood vessels to deliver essential raw materials to every inch of The Body.

She decides to hit the gym after work, but I wish she’d wait a little longer. She just polished off a big slice of office birthday cake, and Zumba class moves the blood away from me and toward her heart and muscles. Fair enough, they’re doing all the work. But still, the intense exercise slows me down. When The Body waits at least an hour after eating, I’m actually a big fan of regular exercise because it makes me more efficient. Aerobic exercise is my favorite. Over time, The Body’s workouts keep my muscles in good shape so they contract more easily and push food through so I don’t get backed up.

When The Body finally gets home, I want dinner immediately. Greek salad with shrimp—yum. It’s a big improvement over the taco disaster, and I’m excited to get down to business. But … wham! She lies down right after her last bite. It’s tough to blame her; she’s exhausted. She does so much for everyone. But as she hits the couch, all the hydrochloric acid I’ve deployed to digest her dinner sloshes up toward my esophagus where it definitely does not belong. Ouch! That burns!

A couple of hours later, The Body decides to call it a night. But I never sleep. I’m a round-the-clock organ, turning those olives, feta, and shrimp into the energy she’ll need to face tomorrow. I’ll try to harness my enteric nervous system to send her sweet dreams.

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Serge Bloch

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