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Why the Bible Talks about “Bowels” of Mercy

Diagram of the brain and vagus nerve connections to the body: Illustration 227529770 / Intestines Brain © Tetiana Pavliuchenko | Dreamstime.com

[Originally published as Got a Gut Feeling?]

The Bible teaches that our “bowels” are directly connected to our passion and focus:

My bowels, my bowels! I have pain in my insides and they roar and are unquiet in me; They push me to speak up, and why? Because my soul heard the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Jeremiah 4:19

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The Bible says that our bowels make us:

  • long for relationship with others
  • long for our children to be safe
  • want to be with a lover

And that they:

  • are churned up when we hide our sin,
  • are stirred up when we see the danger that sinners are in or when we feel remorse for our own rebellion
  • when we see destruction come to others.

Our bowels are refreshed by fellowship. They lead us to have compassion on the needy and meet their needs. They fill us with love when we see fellow believers serving God and others and lead us to fellowship with and be of one mind with them.

God has rumbling bowels of mercy towards those he loves who are in trouble: Isaiah 63:15; Jeremiah 31:20

I am to greatly long after fellowship (in the bowels of Jesus): Genesis 43:30; 1 Kings 3:26; 2 Corinthians 7:15; Philippians1:8; Philemon 20

I am to put on bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering: Song of Songs 5:4; Isaiah 16:11; Lamentations 1:20, 2:11; Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12; Philemon 7; 1 John 3:17

If I choose evil, I suffer the consequences in my bowels: Job 20:14; 2 Corinthians 6:12

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Scientists are finding out details of how the bowels do all this!

The Brain Talks to the Gut through:

  1. chemicals in the blood,
  2. the spinal cord,
  3. hormones, and
  4. the vagus nerve.

Have you ever had a “gut-wrenching” experience? Do certain situations make you feel nauseous, have butterflies in your stomach, feel sick to your stomach, feel scared ****less, feel gut heaviness, etc?

All these and more are gut responses to the brain signaling that something important is happening. It alerts the body that we need to pay attention and relate to the situation according to the type and intensity of the challenge.

The Enteric (gut) Nervous System, ENS, forms two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells. These are arranged in an intricate double layer of lacework neurons forming a sock around the intestines from the esophagus to the rectum.

The ENS produces more than 30 neurotransmitters that affect the gut walls and bacteria. Together, these are referred to as our “second brain.” When we perceive stress, these neurons are signaled to set the tone of our response.

The cells of the gut wall are instructed to put out cytokines to alert the immune system to fix any damage that might occur. In the middle of the gut, the bacteria are signaled to put out needed neurotransmitters.

The Gut Talks to the Brain: Gut bacteria “talk” to the ENS gut-brain and also to the head-brain via neurotransmitters, hormones, fatty acids, metabolites and cytokines.

Gut Intuition

I need to listen to my gut. It generates a sense of caution even when a situation or opportunity may seem positive to our frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is too “logical” to pick up on concerns that are not really clear, but the gut responds to the “hard to put my finger on” ruminations of the emotional back parts of our brain.

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Mental (Gut) Health

For decades, researchers and doctors knew that anxiety and depression contributed to gut problems. Now we realize that it also works the other way around. Researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system sends signals up to the central nervous system that triggers mood changes.

The vagus nerve sends information about the state of the inner organs to the brain via afferent (upgoing) fibers. Then the vagus nerve sends messages back to the gut that calm down cytokine production in the lining of the gut. The gut says “Watch out!” and the brain answers back, “Calm down”. (Cytokines stir up the immune system and, if run too long, cause inflammation.)

The gut sends messages up the vagus nerve that increase serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine systems in the brainstem. In the short term, these help us calm down, analyze, and take action. Long term, this constant release causes depletion of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine and this contributes to mood and anxiety disorders.

“Friendly” gut bacteria (which thrive on a diet of fiber) have a beneficial effect on mood and anxiety, partly by affecting the activity of the vagus nerve.

“Unfriendly” bacteria (which thrive on sugar) will attack the lining of the gut and trigger the immune system and chronic inflammation. The gut lymphoid tissue is the largest immune organ in the body and when stirred up can cause almost every illness known: cancer, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, irritable bowel, asthma, etc.

Hormones and peptides that the gut nervous system releases into the blood circulation cross the blood-brain barrier (e.g., ghrelin) and can act synergistically (along) with the vagus nerve to regulate food intake and appetite.

Bacteria in the gut put out chemicals that trigger hunger in the brain for the food that the bacteria like. For example, some bacteria send out chemicals that cause an urge in the brain to want chocolate. It’s really your gut’s chocolate bacteria screaming, “Feed me, feed me!”

What Can I Do?

The good news is that if I eat fiber, the fiber-loving bacteria put out chemicals that urge more fiber consumption and the chocolate bugs die or are eliminated.

It can seem complicated but God’s solutions are simple:

  • care about the current moment,
  • seek grace to obey,
  • let it go, and
  • cast any leftover care on Jesus because he cares for me.

My natural way invites me to live in stress, which causes me to:

  • put out cortisol
  • causes holes to appear in the gut lining
  • triggers an immune response
  • put out IL6 in the blood which calms down cortisol receptors
  • causes the brain to be even more sensitized to stress
  • put out more cortisol

and round and round.

For more information type, “healthy gut” into the search on my blog.

Written by Verle Bell M.D.

Verle Bell M.D. is a practicing psychiatrist deeply conscious of the brilliant design Jesus Christ built into the human psyche. Besides holding the role of senior pastor for several years he has been a follower of the biblical creation movement for decades. You can find his thoughts on the Bible, mental health, and living as Jesus' disciples at VerleBellMD.com

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