The Gut and Brain Connection
Those are not just butterflies in your belly
THE GUT AND BRAIN CONNECTION
The sensation of “butterflies in your belly,” and “having a gut feeling,” are more than just sayings these days. More research is being conducted that supports the connection between the gut and the brain than ever before. In fact, the gut has been referred to as our “second brain,” meaning; it can think and act independently from the central nervous system. The health of the gut is quickly becoming one of the most critical components in maintaining optimal health.
The Second Brain
The enteric nervous system, often referred to as “the second brain,” controls the gastrointestinal system and is linked to the brain by millions of neurons. While our enteric nervous system is in constant contact with the central nervous system, it can also act independently, meaning; it can perform an important role of monitoring the entire digestive tract separately.
The primary role of the enteric nervous system is controlling digestion and the critical steps in the digestive process. For instance, it helps with swallowing and the release of digestive enzymes as well as controls the flow of blood to help with the assimilation of nutrients and elimination of waste.
It used to be thought that neurological disorders like depression and anxiety trigger auto-immune conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or other digestive related issues. However, the opposite is likely true, a dysfunction of the gut may cause changes in mood and behavior triggered by the enteric nervous system. Nearly 30 to 40 percent of the population suffers from digestive related issues, which helps explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with a compromised gut suffer from neurological issues like depression and anxiety.
These fundamental understandings of the relationship between the gut and brain have helped to explain the effectiveness of neurofeedback technology and other alternative medicine practices that help bridge the gap between the gut and brain axis.
The Gut And Your Happiness
A recent study found that the microbiota directly influences behavior and emotion. Researchers compared the gut flora in different groups of women and noticed a significant change in cognitive function and emotions like anxiety and irritability based on bacteria levels in the gut. Furthermore, there have been numerous studies in animals that show those who were exposed to stressors exhibited a profound differentiation in gut bacteria.
The changes in gut bacteria can occur due to various reasons such as:
STRESS – Our body’s immediate reaction to stress, whether it is physical or mental, is to release adrenaline in order to survive. For instance, if you are hiking and being chased by a mountain lion, your body releases hormones to help you run faster and enter survival mode. You may notice your heart beats faster, your eyes widen and even your blood platelets become sticky so that you would bleed less in the event you were attacked. Thankfully our body knows how to respond after stressful situations by the ability to regulate fight-or-flight and rest-and-recovery systems. Once the stressful situation has cleared, our body decreases the fight-or-flight response and returns to normal.
The problem arises when you are living in a chronic state of stress, for instance working in a stressful environment. Since your body cannot differentiate between a physical stressor like a mountain lion versus mental stressor like your job, it reacts the same way, causing your body to live in an eternal state of increased inflammation.
IMMUNE SYSTEM – Inflammation is a natural response by your immune system to toxins, infection and stress. If inflammation is experienced over a prolonged period of time, the immune system weakens, leading to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease as well as neurological disorders like ADHD, autism, anxiety and depression. With roughly 80 percent of the immune system located in the gut, it makes gut health a primary concern in order to achieve optimal health.
What Makes Up A Healthy Gut
A healthy gut is determined by the collection of bacteria that resides in the gut, more commonly referred to as your microbiome. The key to optimal gut health is by maintaining a healthy balance of good and bad bacteria in the microbiome as well as maintaining a healed gut lining.
Microbiome – The collection of bacteria that resides in the gut, also known as the microbiome, is responsible for your immune system as well brain function. The overgrowth of bad bacteria can cause many complications like dysbiosis, and overgrowth of bacteria in the gut, which eventually leads to more serious conditions like inflammatory bowel diseases such a Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis as well as neurological issues like depression, anxiety and autism. In fact, studies show that these particular diseases stem from a lack of diversity in the gut microbiota.
Gut Lining – The gut lining is comprised of epithelial cells that are bound together by tight junctions. When these junctions are impaired, it causes the gut to become permeable allowing undigested foods and toxins to seep into the bloodstream, or more commonly referred to as Leaky Gut. When the gut lining becomes permeable, it leads to inflammation and a number of additional ailments, such as: asthma, allergies, eczema, migraine, and autoimmune conditions like irritable bowel, fibromyalgia, and inflammatory joint disorders to name a few.
A few common symptoms of leaky gut are:
- Food allergies
- Neurological dysfunction
- Skin issues (such as eczema, acne, rosacea, scleroderma)
- Digestive complications
- Joint pain
- Thyroid conditions
Leaky gut can be caused by many factors including medications such as antibiotics, birth control, aspirin, and NSAIDs, for example, ibuprofen. Diets high in processed foods and alcohol can also be damaging to the gut. It is best to avoid any processed foods full of artificial ingredients and hydrogenated oils as they can compromise gut health. Grains and dairy can also be difficult to tolerate with a leaky gut so it is best to avoid them while working on healing the gut and then reintroducing at a later date once the gut has properly healed.
Ways To Repair The Gut-Brain Connection
Probiotics – Probiotics are essentially the beneficial bacteria that line your gut. Probiotics are critical for optimal gut health as the gut thrives on a healthy balance between the good and bad bacteria. Plus, studies show that taking probiotics reduced feelings of depression and anxiety and improved overall well-being .
Probiotics can be found in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha, a fermented Chinese tea. They can also be found in homemade yogurt and kefir, which tend to have a higher probiotic content versus store-bought brands as they are allowed to culture for longer periods of time.
Another great way to incorporate probiotics is through a supplement. Prescript Assist is a soil-based probiotic that is comprised of the very same bacteria that lines your gut. Plus, it is designed to travel through the entire digestive tract unlike other probiotics that often times dissolve in the acidic environment of the stomach, never making it to the gut.
Prebiotics – Prebiotics are essentially what the probiotics consume and are necessary in order for the healthy bacteria to thrive. Think of it this way, probiotics are living bacteria and if you supplement them into your diet, they need a healthy environment in order to live. If your gut is full of processed foods and an overgrowth of bad bacteria, the probiotics will not survive. Prebiotics have been linked to disease prevention like colitis and cancer to name a few. Plus, prebiotics have been noted to prevent obesity and diabetes as well as chronic constipation
The best sources for prebiotics are:
- Coconut Meat & Flour
- Flax and Chia Seeds
- Chicory Root
- Dandelion Greens
- Jerusalem Artichoke
The best way to get prebiotics in your diet is through food and nutrition, so making sure these foods are readily available to snack on throughout the day or incorporate into your meals throughout the week.
Bone Broth – Bone broth is one of the most healing and nourishing foods for the gut. Bone broth aids in reducing inflammation but also helps in providing the gut the proper nutrients it needs to help heal. Broth contains ingredients like collagen and cartilage; two proteins that help rebuild the gut lining. Bone broth also contains other proteins like l-glutamine, glycine and proline, amino acids that are essential in repairing and rebuilding the body.
L-Glutamine – L-glutamine is an amino acid, the building blocks of protein, which accounts for over 60 percent of the free amino acids in your blood, brain, organs, and muscle tissue. L-glutamine promotes digestive health, brain function, muscle integrity and more. L-glutamine is an important nutrient, especially as it relates to the gut, because it helps repair and rebuild intestines and strengthen the gut lining. L-glutamine can be found in supplement or powder form but is also apparent in foods like bone broth, humanely raised meats like grass-fed beef and wild caught fish, and a few vegetables like asparagus, Chinese cabbage, and broccoli raab.
Eliminate Processed Foods – Processed foods weaken the strength of the gut leading to countless diseases like diabetes and autoimmune conditions. Processed foods are defined by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydrating, or milling.” The best way to reduce exposure to processed foods is to stick to whole, fresh ingredients like fruits, vegetables, humanely raised meats and seafood and good quality fats like grass-fed butter.
Clearly gut health affects more than just your gut which is why it is important to consume nourishing foods and adopt a lifestyle that helps support optimal gut health.