The gut that changes itself.

Brain training. There’s an app for that. I was about to ask, stupidly now that I think about it as I type it, is there gut training? Yeah, it’s called eating. Training your gut for the better (ostensibly) is called dieting. Well, it’s called going/being on a diet. Dieting isn’t the most fashionable word. Kind of an ironic mouthful. Now that I think about it (in what will be ironic by the end of this sentence), brain training is just thinking.

How do you change your brain? By thinking, of course. Except that the brain changes itself, so it’s mostly by being that you change your brain. In other words, it’s not entirely in your control. Positive thinking comes from your brain functioning a certain way, or more optimistically, your brain functions a certain way because of how you think. Or it’s way more complicated that some silly binary like that. Neuroplasticity welcomes it all. You can choose your brain’s shape, at any point in your life; it just gets harder as you get older because your choices tend to reinforce the mold that was shaped by your upbringing and genetics. You learn how to train your brain in a particular way, and if you never learn that you can unlearn that learning, that’s who you are. The brain’s plasticity promises the possibility of a slumbering becoming. A Sleeping Beauty of the self, waiting for the gentle (if we stick to a traditional fairy tale interpretation) kiss of your own awareness.

The gut is just as plastic, and the two are linked. The gut changes itself completely every – what? – 3 days? On a cellular level, you’re not the same you of several years ago. You’re constantly recycled universal energy.

Every one of us is a zoo in our own right – a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.

Yong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (Kindle Locations 231-232). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

As your own zookeeper, you have modest control over the animals inside you (gross). Or at least over what animals get to be there. After that, they’ll behave chaotically, on their own, interacting with each other in ways that totally undermine the zoo analogy. But still, let’s roll with the idea that each of us is our own Zootopia. Mine definitely has Shakira performing on a loop. It’s quite the party in there, which is probably why I’m such an unmoored mess right now, digestively speaking…which also means psychologically speaking. My gut and brain are not in harmony. They’re like peanut butter and pruritis ani, i.e. they’re like the uncomfortable pairing I experienced that started me down the path of discovering just how dysbiotic my system is.

So while I’m excited to accept my Whitmanian multitudinous being, I wish my gut changed itself more rapidly, and more favorably to my brain. It’s a slower process – a bit too evolutionary – than my Ego wants. (The Ego never wants to change itself, which makes its role in this Holy Trinity really goddamn frustrating.) I’ve completely changed my diet and my relationship to food, and so my gut is definitely changing. I’m not sure if it’s for the better; I’m walking (when I have the energy) with it into unknown territory. There’s no promise it will be a beneficial adaptation. The reassuring thing is that I can always train my gut differently, just as I can always train my brain differently; the not-so-reassuring thing is that endurance weakens with age (or so I’ve let my brain accept). This means that helping my gut change itself demands more than my perpetually youthful Ego is willing to reconcile. “Not eat all the foods I used to love? Okay, but for how long?”

The journey? The journey sucks. Especially when there’s no time frame. And yeah, I get the whole “be here now” philosophy, but I sure am struggling to embody it when I don’t want to be in my actually body. It’s hard to internalize and enact abstract concepts with this thing when I can’t even accept concrete realities.

When you choose your meals, you are also choosing which bacteria get fed, and which get an advantage over their peers. But they don’t have to sit there and graciously await your decision. As we have seen, bacteria have ways of hacking into the nervous system. If they released dopamine, a chemical involved in feelings of pleasure and reward, when you ate the ‘right’ things, could they potentially train you to choose certain foods over others? Do they get a say in your menu picks?

Yong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (Kindle Locations 1398-1402). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

So when am I me, and when am I my gut? Suddenly following your gut doesn’t sound so wise. Know thyself has to now mean know thy gut. But how do I get to know my gut? What if I don’t like my gut?

This is how ecosystems work: they have a certain resilience to change, which must be overcome if they’re to be pushed into a different state.

Yong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (Kindle Locations 2102-2103). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I’m pushing my gut into a different state. Despite and/or because of my efforts, my gut is changing. It’s always been changing. It’s just adapted so well in the past that I’ve never had to pay any attention to it.

And once these communities start wrecking the gut, they stop it from absorbing nutrients efficiently, leading to even worse malnutrition, more severe immune problems, more distorted microbiomes, and so on. Up and up the ball goes, until it crests the summit and slips into the next dysbiotic valley. Once microbiomes end up there, it can be hard to pull them back.

Yong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (Kindle Locations 2110-2112). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

And this is where I worry I am. Despite and/or because of my efforts, my gut is changing.

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