The sayings “trust your gut,” and “follow your heart” may ring truer than we thought. A new study by researchers from Anglia Ruskin University demonstrates a link between negative body image and weak brain responses to signals from the gut and heart. The researchers believe that these newly discovered associations could lead to objective diagnostic biomarkers for mental health disorders as well as new treatment methods.
“We experience our body both from the inside and out: we can be aware of how our skin and limbs look, but also of how hungry we feel or how strongly our heart is beating during exercise,” says Jane Aspell, the lead author of the study. “The brain also continuously processes internal signals that we are not conscious of.”
The investigation of how the brain senses internal body states is called interoception and has gained more popularity in the past few decades. In fact, the US National Institutes of Health provided over $18 million in funding for interoception-focused studies.
Aspell’s study involved 36 healthy adults. It explored the relationship between body image and interoception by administering to the participants a variety of body image assessments, as well as tracking feelings of body shame and worries about weight. Then, the researchers recorded two different electrophysiological measures of interoception. One is called heartbeat evoked potential (HEP) and tracks the brain’s response to a beating heart. The second measure is called gastric-alpha phase-amplitude coupling (PAC) and tracks electrical activity in parts of the gut and brain in order to measure the brain’s responses to signals from the gut.
The researchers reported that individuals with weaker HEP and PAC measures were also more likely to experience negative perceptions of their external bodies.
“We found that when the brain is less responsive to these implicit signals from inside the body, individuals are more likely to hold negative views about their external bodily appearance,” explains Aspell. “It may be that when the brain has a weaker connection to the internal body, the brain puts more emphasis on the external body and so appearance becomes much more important for self-evaluation.”
The research, while fascinating, is still novel, and so researchers can only hypothesize a causal correlation between weak interoception and negative body image. It is also still unclear which comes first—do weak internal signals between the gut, heart, and brain precede negative body image, or is it the other way around? Could we somehow train our bodies to improve interoception sensitivity to help support better mental health?
There are plenty of avenues for future research, and several activities that could potentially train interoceptive sensitivity have already been suggested for study. Some of these include meditation, mindfulness, acupuncture, and time spent in floatation tanks.
A recent study published in EClinicalMedicine suggests that a novel therapy called Aligning Dimensions of Interoceptive Experience could significantly reduce anxiety in autistic adults, while another study found that incorporating interoceptive awareness skills within a greater program for substance use disorder made it more likely for participants to maintain abstinence.
Researchers say that further exploration is needed to figure out why some brains are more effective at detecting internal signals. In the future, people may be trained to better interpret internal signals, but for now, the new findings could help predict who has a higher risk of developing problems associated with body image such as eating disorders.