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Weaker gut and heart signals linked to negative body image

The strength of the connection between the brain and other organs has an influence on a person’s body image, according to a new study from Anglia Ruskin University. The experts determined that weak signals from the heart and gut can adversely affect the way we see ourselves. 

The research is the first to identify an association between body image and the brain’s processing of internal signals that occur unconsciously. People with brains that are less efficient at detecting these signals are more likely to experience body shame and weight preoccupation, the researchers found.

“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. The brain also continuously processes internal signals that we are not conscious of,” explained study senior author Dr. Jane Aspell, an ARU associate professor of Cognitive Neuroscience.

“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. 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 study was focused on a group of healthy UK adults, who participated in four body image assessments. The experts measured their feelings of body appreciation, body functionality appreciation, body shame, and weight preoccupation.

The team recorded the electrical activity of both the brain and the gut at the same time to estimated the strength of the connection. The researchers also measured brain responses to heartbeats.

The results showed that weaker brain responses to the gut and heart were both associated with greater levels of body shame and weight preoccupation among the participants.

“Our research could have implications for those experiencing negative body image, which can have a serious impact on people’s lives,” said study lead author Dr. Jennifer Todd.

“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.”

The study is ublished in the journal Cortex.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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