The gag response: Cats do it, why don’t we?

Ever so often, my cat eats some bug or moth, and later she gags, retches and throws up the disagreeable food along with some yellowish and white foamy mucous and saliva. Sometimes she eats some grass, and later she gags, retches, and vomits the grass along with some hair. 

After this gag, retch and vomit routine, she doesn’t eat for a while. She takes a break from food, and just drinks water. I’ve watched her do this same routine over the years. It’s not a sign that she’s sick. Quite the contrary, it’s a sign that she’s healthy.

My cat lets her whole body surrender to this ritual of gagging and retching. The gag response means the opening wide of the upper palate, and retching means strong involuntary contractions to induce vomiting. Since my cat has no ego, she doesn’t care what she looks like while she is gagging, retching, and then vomiting up some disagreeable food or hairball along with fluid and mucous from her stomach and esophagus. She really gets into it, and lets her body rhythmically convulse as it back flushes and purges fluid and mucous, and whatever else is in there, from her stomach and upper GI tract. Apparently I am not the only one who has noticed cats gagging and retching. Look on YouTube and you will see plenty of videos of this common phenomenon.

Why am I thinking of my cat throwing up and the gag response right now?

Because yesterday, I ate something at a restaurant that made me sick. To top it off, I had a half a glass of red wine with sulfites. At this point in my embodied journey on planet Earth, as I continue to clean up my act, I am highly allergic to sulfites (as well as nitrites and MSG). The cleaner my gut, liver and kidneys get through my regular detoxing, the more intolerant my body becomes of toxic chemicals. Every few years, I test this reality, and get the same results. And so last night, I became my cat—hanging on the toilet, gagging, retching, and vomiting until I felt I had purged my upper GI tract all the way down to the mucosal lining. ICH!

Though a headache lingered for hours to remind me that I am allergic to red wine with sulfites, after gagging and throwing up the offensive food and wine, I felt immensely better. I went from feeling poisoned to feeling clean again. From pain to discomfort, and then to comfort once again. I came back to balance. After drinking coconut water all day and making a pot of potassium-rich vegetable broth, I restored balance to my GI tract by cooking a pot of gut-soothing Ayurvedic kitchari for dinner (mung bean, rice, root veggies and dark leafy greens in a stew served with ghee, golden raisins, sautéed cashews and of course a delightful combination of anti-inflammatory and digestive spices). Within 24 hours, I returned to feeling my old self again, with energy FOR LIFE. And with a fresh understanding of how powerful the gag response is, why we have it built into our autonomic nervous system, and what its function is.

When we ingest poisons—whether plant tannins, or bad bacteria, or chemical poisons like pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, dyes or flavor enhancers—the body naturally wants to purge them out as fast as possible. If the gag response fails, then the disagreeable toxins can enter the gut and get absorbed into the bloodstream, whereupon it will be the job of the liver and kidneys to filter the toxic poison or pathogen out of the blood and try to excrete it via the colon or bladder—or as a last resort, the skin. And the sooner the better to prevent being poisoned by our own toxic blood.

What’s the takeaway? Well…we all need to be gagging more! The amount of toxic poisons in our commercial food supply and in municipal water is astounding. The truth is, we “civilized” humans became conditioned to eat these toxic poisons without immediately gagging, retching and throwing it up! How did that happen? Why do we even tolerate gross pasteurized pus-laden, antibiotic-laden, hormone-laden, fat-free milk that is so devoid of nutrients that synthetic vitamin D has to be added back into it? Or herbicide-laden, genetically-modified wheat. Or aspartame-laden diet soda. How did we come to trick the gag response that evolved to prevent us from eating poisons in the first place? Why don’t we gag and throw up as regularly as our pet cats do?

Because maybe we should be.

Maybe if our gag response was alive and well, we would intuitively KNOW what foods to eat and which foods to avoid. And then all that advertising and marketing wouldn’t affect us at all, because it wouldn’t mean much compared to our own embodied revulsion and expulsion of toxic crap and fake processed phoods that inflame, poison, and toxify rather than soothe, comfort and nourish.

What if we all gagged, retched and vomited in public, like our cats. Think about it! We would quickly notice which foods are toxic and which are wholesome and clean, and could respond accordingly. And that, my fellow healists, would be evolutionary. We could end up being as smart as cats again.

Instead, people are conditioned to eat toxic foods as if they aren't poisonous, wash them down, hold them in, and then medicate the aftereffects with heartburn drugs, anti-inflammatory drugs, and over-the-counter pain relievers. What we're doing is overriding the gag response. As if doing so is somehow civilized, even though it is patently unhealthy. We act like we’re ok when we’re not, chewing antacids rather than throw up offensive food tainted with pesticides and herbicides we can't digest or safely metabolize. We do this individually, and we do it collectively. We act like we’re not being poisoned, when we are. People in the U.S. where chronic disease rates are unusually high are particularly adept at this non-adaptive behavior. We don’t throw up when we should, and we swallow down what we shouldn’t.

I admit my own sense of gagging, retching and vomiting is influenced by numerous Ayahuasca ceremonies I have experienced. My memories have influenced my editorial slant on this topic. What a purge! Afterwards, I felt physically, emotionally and spiritually lighter. The inner visions flashing by during my journeys with sacred plant medicine imprinted in my consciousness the healing effect of gagging and retching. The sacred plant Mother Ayahuasca is many medicines in one, but one thing she is for sure is a potent liver and upper GI tract detoxifier. Spitting up old mucous and bile and even passing parasites are common during ceremony.

Purging also has an emotional and spiritual dimension. Tears are often shed during purges. Because there are other things we should be gagging and retching over, and eventually violently purging, in addition to poisons in our food. Our inability to purge when appropriate has made people in the U.S. very, very sick as a nation. The stats tell the sad truth. Half of all Americans already have one or more chronic disease. That’s unheard of in history. It’s a new frontier, but one that won’t bode well for future generations if something doesn’t change on a very large scale.

Look around and survey the social landscape, and you’ll see who’s gagging adaptively and who’s not.

For example, Germans gagged on nuclear power after the fallout from Fukushima, starting almost immediately to decommission old nuclear plants in Germany, surely driven by downwinder memories of Chernobyl, which by the time of Fukushima's triple reactor meltdown in March 2011 was in dire need of a new concrete sarcophagus to mitigate the constant release of ionizing radiation that experts predict will last for 1,000 years and more. The Fukushima meltdown solidified the German practice of funding renewable energy initiatives in solar with progressive taxes on dirty energy, a practice that has made Germany the world leader in solar energy production. Sweden gagged over the nuclear disaster in Japan as well, setting an ambitious goal of 100% renewable energy production by 2020, and challenging other countries to join them.

Of course, the Japanese people gagged too, in massive public protests against nuclear power that had the last of 43 nuclear reactors closed down by March 2013. The Japanese anti-nuclear movement retched hard indeed, vehemently rejecting nuclear tech—driven by not-too-distant memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the total insanity of America's frenetic nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific in the 1950s and '60s that left the Bikini Islands uninhabitable to this day and for thousands of years to come.

Sadly, the Japanese government's economic ties to the U.S. and its powerful and aggressive nuclear lobby gave an intractable leverage that had two nuclear power plants back in operation by 2016. A court injunction forced the shutdown of one, but jimmying within the Japanese court system has the injunction in appeal. Meanwhile radioactive fallout and ocean washout from Fukushima has already hit the West Coast of the U.S.. Fukushima's Cesium 134 markers are peaking west of San Francisco five years after the accident—and the eyes of the world are focused on the United States to see if Americans are going to gag and retch up their chilling obsession with and attachment to nuclear technology in the face of environmental catastrophe.

Perhaps it’s time for Americans to reinvigorate the gag response. It could help us be more adaptive. Help us adapt to a toxic load that builds every day across the full spectrum of daily life—from nuclear to the contaminated food we eat, to the fracked water we drink and bathe in, to the pesticides we douse our foods in, to the 58 vaccines laden with aluminum and mercury the pharmaceutical industry wants to inject in every single schoolchild regardless of risk.

At what point is it time to gag, retch and vomit—driven by the primal urge to purge what's poisoning us. Who cares what it looks like? Trust that it’s an adaptive response to poisons that make us sick. Keep it simple. Don’t overthink it. Let it be embodied. Trust your gut. And surrender to the natural process—the upper palate opens wide, the abdomen heaves and convulses, the retching starts, followed by violent expulsions of fluids. If our cats can do it, so can we. And if enough of us do it together, collective health and wellbeing can be ours again.

For inspiration, I'm ending this blog post with a compilation video of cats gagging set to techno music. Check out these cats...they make throwing up look—well, natural and healthy. 

Gag, retch and be well.