A lack of communication between the gut and brain could give rise to a negative body image
The discovery could lead to treatments to help those suffering from a negative body image or those with eating disorders, the researchers say.
Some of us feel like a million bucks when we look in the mirror, but for others it’s more like 50 cents. For some, this can be a serious problem as having a negative body image can have a huge impact on mental health, and even lead to eating disorders.
Now, in a first-of-its-kind study, a team of researchers at Angela Ruskin University has found that the strength of the connection between our brains and gut may influence how we feel about our appearance.
Some of the signals from the gut and other internal organs are processed at an unconscious level. The nervous system interprets them and sends information about the body’s internal state to the brain. The team wanted to study what effect this process has on a person’s body image.
They had a group of healthy UK adults take part in an survey to determine how they scored themselves in four body image-related categories: body appreciation, body functionality appreciation, body shame, and weight preoccupation.
They then measured the strength of the connection between the gut and the brain by recording the electrical activity in both regions simultaneously, along with the brain’s responses to changes in heartbeat.
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They found that participants with weaker brain responses to the gut and heart signals reported greater levels of body shame and weight preoccupation. The effect may be due to those with weaker connections between the brain and the internal body placing more emphasis on the external body, making appearance a much greater factor when forming opinions of themselves.
“Our research could have implications for those experiencing negative body image, which can have a serious impact on people’s lives,” said lead author Dr Jennifer Todd, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU).
“The gut and heart signal measurements used in our study could potentially act as a biomarker to help identify, or even predict, negative body image and associated conditions, such as eating disorders. Additionally, by training people to become more aware of internal sensations, it might be possible to amplify these unconscious signals.
“We need to understand why some brains are better at detecting these internal signals than others. We expect it is partly due to differences in neuro-anatomical connections between the brain and internal organs, and this will be the subject of future research.”
Reader Q&A: Do we get our gut bacteria microbiome before or after birth?Asked by: Michael Chandler, Hereford
We each have trillions of bacteria living in our gut and this microbiome plays important roles in digestion and fighting disease. Their origins have long been debated, but two large-scale studies in 2019 offered some answers.
In one, researchers retrieved more than 500 placentas from women shortly after giving birth, and found the healthy placentas were sterile. Another study reported that babies delivered by caesarean lack certain strains of beneficial bacteria. Taken together, the research indicates we pick up our microbiome during and shortly after birth.
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.