when to trust your gut

Illustration: Samantha Hahn/CWC-1.com

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A Gutsy Move
When she mustered her courage, Elizabeth Graver finally found inner peace.

I was 30 years old, traveling in Turkey. After a day spent at the cave churches of Cappadocia, I sat at a village restaurant. My dinner was mild: lemony chicken, stuffed grape leaves. But midmeal, I was overcome by a knifing pain in my abdomen. In the WC, I curled into myself. Empty, I commanded my belly, but it refused. I was sick for the rest of the trip—and, to varying degrees, have been for the past 19 years.

An intense crush, great grief or sudden joy—I've always felt them most acutely in the neuron-packed corridor that some scientists call the second brain. The gut is a key site of interaction between mind and body; it's also a complex ecosystem that requires an exquisite microbial balance, a fabled seat of intuition and a bit of an enigma. My illness could have been triggered by a virus I'd picked up on my travels or just some long-dormant trouble; the doctors didn't know.

I love to work from instinct—dropping down inside a novel I'm writing, hiking without a map. But after the trip to Turkey I feared my insides were not up for adventure. Though I yearned to see far-flung places, this gut I am supposed to follow was telling me, Stop! Careful! I usually got only as close as books and movies could take me.

Then, three years ago, I was invited to teach a course in India. I said yes at once, before the panic could set in. It would be me, ten American students, my family. My gut. I surfed the Web, fretted. Finally, armed with probiotics and antibiotics, I ventured forth. Carefully. "Wash your hands," I barked at my charges. "Peel the fruit yourself!"

And yet. My anxieties shrank against the backdrop of India, a place of chaos and struggle, beauty and improvisation. There was so much to see, smell, hear—taste. I waded into the Ganges and let a priest splash water on my face. I opened a cunning paper packet on the train and took a bite of something sweet I could not name. I got sick, but not terribly; then I got better. The gut may be fragile, but it is also resilient, capable of embracing newness, withstanding peril, finding nourishment in the strangeness of the journey. My first and second brain were in sync, alive, crossing worlds.

Keep Reading: 4 things you never knew about your gut