Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Should women listen to intuition?

Medical experts say it might not always be right, but it shouldn't be ignored

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dr. Robin Miller has a message for women: If you think something's wrong, you're probably right.

Miller, a Medford, Ore., internist, urges women to listen to the little voice - or loud one - that tells them something is not quite right with their bodies. Miller is a keynote speaker at the sold-out Speaking of Women's Health National Conference, which opens today at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington.

Women's Health The 2003 Speaking of Women's Health National Conference, which opens today at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington, focuses on the Year of the Can-Do Woman. The 2003 Cincinnati conference, which features more than 70 health experts, is sold-out. For information on next year's conference, visit or call (866) 794-4636.
"Women often take care of everyone else but themselves, ignoring their own needs. The truth is, you can't take care of everyone else if you don't take care of yourself," Miller says. "If you think something is wrong, listen to that message and take care of it. Women wait way too long with heart attacks and heart disease when they can feel that something is wrong. They're pretty good at using intuition with their kids' health, but they won't do it for themselves."

Intuition - the ability to know things without conscious reasoning - is a hot topic. Dozens of books, workshops and courses tout its power and promise to hone consumers' intuition to a razor-sharp edge.

Skeptics argue intuition is nothing but the ability to immediately tune into information available through the senses.

Believers say it's a mind-body amalgam that can lead to health, wealth and happiness, if properly utilized.

Scientists wonder whether intuition can be mapped out in the brain or other parts of the body. Intuition usually can tell people something's wrong with their health. But it can't make a diagnosis or prescribe a treatment, says Dr. Steve Amoils, co-director of the Alliance Institute for Integrative Medicine in Kenwood.

The key is to balance the little voice with hard facts, Amoils says.

Translation: Trust your gut, but get the X-ray just in case.

Amoils calls intuition "a wonderful adjunct in making decisions." It can be very useful choosing among treatment options with similar success rates.

"Statistics only give you a view of an entire population. They don't give you the view of an individual," Amoils says.

But the same emotional base that grounds a person's intuitive sense can also trip it up.

"The question is, what do people know? What is intuition and how do you feel it? The problem with intuition is it can be mixed up with neurosis or obsession," Amoils says. "You can convince yourself that an idea is your intuition when it's just a neurotic thought that's going around and around in your head."Intuition "has as important a role as a woman will allow it to play," says Aingel Grehan, an intuitive healer in Mount Lookout. "Everyone has intuition, is intuitive, but it's the extent to which we use it" that matters. "I think of it as a muscle, and in the same way you flex a muscle to make it strong, you have to use your intuition to make it work for you."

But intuition has to be balanced against logic and fact, Grehan says. "As a reasoning person, you want to bring in your logical mind and compare the facts and see if the feeling goes with the facts." There's a myth that only women are intuitive. Women tend to be more in touch with their emotions - often the guiding force behind intuition - and so they're more comfortable following their gut, Grehan says. But anyone willing to invest the quiet time necessary can develop their intuition, she says.

"In order to really tune into our own intuition, we have to find a kind of stillness within ourselves," Grehan says. "One of the things that works against intuition is fear."

Meditation, being in nature and listening to calming music can be used to strengthen intuition, she says. "It's paying attention to yourself, paying attention to your feelings, knowing that they're valid and acting on them."

Dr. Walter Smitson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati and director of the Central Clinic, hears from patients all the time who wish they'd gone with their gut instinct.

"People who go by their intuitive instincts are much more often right than wrong," he says. "They're not right 100 percent. But one's intuitive sense is very often an excellent indicator of what you should do.

"What I've experienced through the years is the number of women who have said to me, `If only I had listened to my intuition, I would not have gotten myself into a bad marriage, or done this or done that.' I think it's interesting that I see many more people who say to me, `I wish I had followed my intuition,' as opposed to, `I followed my intuition and it got me into trouble.' "

Pregnant pauses

Pregnant women often have a strong sense of whether they're going to have a boy or girl, says Dr. Marvin Almquist, an obstetrician/gynecologist with Greater Cincinnati OB/Gyn Inc. They have at least a 50-50 chance of being right. And expectant moms who take care of themselves know when their pregnancy is in trouble.

"Women are much more tuned into their bodies than men are," Almquist says.

There are other explanations: If a baby stops moving late in a woman's pregnancy, there's a good chance there's a problem. And women who are having boys might develop increased acne or a stronger sex drive because of the additional testosterone.

Mothers, in general, have good instincts when it comes to their children's health, Miller says.

"I learned a long time ago that it's really important to listen to a mom's instinct about her kids. They almost always know when something's wrong," she says.

Is there gut instinct?

There's an anatomical quirk in the body that makes believers sure the phrase "gut instinct" is more than a cliche.

The enteric nervous system is a cluster of neurons, or nerve cells, located in (and you knew we were going to say this) the gut. Some people call it the "gut brain" or "second brain."

"Its function is to coordinate the various aspects of gastrointestinal activity," says Dr. Randy Seeley, a neuroscientist at the University of Cincinnati.

"What's interesting about it is it's just as complex as the whole rest of the nervous system," says Dr. Michael Nussbaum, chief of the section of general surgery at University Hospital. There are as many neurons in the enteric nervous system as there are in the spinal cord.

And the enteric nervous system does its job on its own.

"The different portions of the gut can communicate with each other, independent of the brain and the spinal cord," Nussbaum says.

Seeley won't speculate on the enteric nervous system's role in intuition, if there is one.

But, he points out, there's a reason people talk about "butterflies in their stomach" when they're nervous.

"What's true is that emotional responses via the vagus (or vagal) nerve have big impact on gastrointestinal function. The vagus nerve is the major sensory nerve and motor nerve that goes to your GI tract from your brain," Seeley says.

"There's no doubt that a variety of emotions changes your gastrointestinal function. If you're in a `fight or flight' situation, you stop absorbing nutrients. Why? Because you don't want blood flowing into your gastrointestinal system when you really need it going to your muscles to give you the strength to fight or run away."

Grehan was "just fascinated" when she read about the enteric nervous system, but she wasn't surprised.

"Science is finally catching up," she says.

Nussbaum doesn't buy it.

"I think the intestinal tract can be affected by things other than just digestion and, yes, it can be affected by emotional input. But is it the source of it? No," he says. "It's kind of like when people say they feel something with their heart. You feel with your brain. It's the same sort of thing."

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