Do you know those irritable people that always seem angry or depressed, sensitive to emotion, live in constant chaos, or seem perpetually stuck in unfavorable situations? Sometimes, this is just a byproduct of poor brain function. Of course, naturally optimistic people can suffer from poor brain function too—symptoms may consist of memory loss, brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
All of these feelings—and others—can trigger symptoms in the gut. This gut-brain connection operates as a bi-directional system; therefore, a person’s gut inflammation or distress can be the cause or byproduct of stress, anxiety, or depression.
This is particularly true in circumstances when a person experiences gastrointestinal (GI) upset without a physical cause. For such functional GI disorders, it is a challenge to heal the gut without first looking at the connection between the gut and brain and considering the effects of stress and emotion.
One of the most significant things to understand is the intimate link between the gut and the brain. We have several receptors that fire into the brain, such as for sensation, sound, temperature, balance, etc. These signals stimulate the brain to relay information into the brainstem of the central nervous system (CNS), which is the area of the brain that keeps the heart beating, lungs functioning, and gut moving.
The wall of the digestive system is innervated by the CNS and the enteric nervous system (ENS)—it has millions of neurons that control blood flow and secretions to help you digest food. Inflammatory issues, such as in intestinal permeability (leaky gut) or an imbalance in the gut microbiome (dysbiosis) can impact the messages from the gut to the brain.
The vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that is a part of the ENS, is a key pathway to the activation of the digestive system. Degeneration of vagal function, or less activation of the vagus nerve, compromises the digestive function by decreasing blood flow to the gut (which leads to leaky gut, neuroinflammation, and a cycle of other inflammatory responses).
The multitude of neurons in the ENS not only influence our GI function but also how we “feel”—this is why the ENS is called our second brain. Though the second brain is not capable of in-depth thought, it does “talk” to the brain.
Stress, for example, is closely tied to the gut. The body responds to external and internal stressors with the “fight or flight” system. During a stressful situation, a redirection of energy takes place; your digestion is put on hold, your heart and respiratory rate escalate, and your palms may get sweaty. This protective mechanism is intimately related to cortisol levels, which are ruled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
Typically, diffusion of the stressful situation resets your body back to normal. But if you are always stressed, anxious, or stuck ruminating on negative thoughts, your body gets caught in a fight or flight response.
The byproduct of this chronic response is chronic inflammation—the root of many diseases. Inflammation leads to serious health consequences, such as high blood pressure, intestinal permeability, autoimmune disorders, and neurodegeneration.
The trillions of gut microbes—collectively known as the microbiome—also play a role in the regulation of our immune response. Communication between the gut microbiome and nervous system may influence disorders like anxiety and depression, autism, and dementia.
GUT-BRAIN OR BRAIN-GUT IMPAIRMENT
How do you recognize if you need to improve your gut-to-brain or brain-to-gut axis?
If your brain is impaired (brain fog, memory loss), if you suffer from intestinal motility issues (constipation, nausea), and if you have not had a positive response to conventional digestive protocols, you may have a brain-to-gut impairment.
Furthermore, if you have digestive issues, these can impact your brain chemistry and impair your gut-to-brain communication.
It is not uncommon to be in a vicious cycle of both a gut-to-brain and brain-to-gut impairment; most people need to support both simultaneously.
A characteristic symptom of this cycle is a decrease in the motility of the gut and consequently constipation, straining during bowel movements, and incomplete elimination. Poor elimination means that waste sits in the intestines, promoting an environment for yeast and bacterial overgrowths and the development of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
Poor vagal function also encourages gallbladder stones and attacks and reduces the effectiveness of digestive secretions; therefore, digesting food becomes difficult.
Many patients with chronic gut dysfunction never improve because they do not move past treating it at the gut level—this will create the vicious cycle. Poor gut health will impact your brain function thus causing depression, anxiety, poor cognition, and other brain-based symptoms.
GUT-BRAIN HEALING STRATEGIES
While there’s still much to discover about the mystery of the digestive system and all that it affects, we are sure of several things that can help improve the connection between your gut and brain.
Support for Your Gut-Brain Axis
- Follow the autoimmune paleo (AIP) diet.
- Avoid processed foods.
- Avoid gluten and other immune sensitive foods.
- Remove food sensitivities.
- Eliminate sweets.
- Eat a lot of vegetables.
- Have healthy fats.
- Consume different types of fiber.
- Eat probiotics and prebiotics.
- Remove pathogenic and reduce opportunistic bacteria and microorganisms.
- Supplemental support may include digestive enzymes, L-Glutamine, N-acetyl glucosamine, and antifungals (such as oregano oil).
Support for Your Brain-Gut Axis
- Every neuron needs oxygen, glucose, and stimulation.
- Oxygen – A reduction in blood flow to the brain, such as from a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, anemia, low blood pressure, and hypothyroidism, reduces the amount of oxygen the brain receives.
- Glucose – Glucose fuels the brain. If you become hypoglycemic (low blood glucose) from going too long without eating, you may feel dizzy or lightheaded. On the other hand, in insulin resistance (high blood glucose), glucose can’t get into the cells of your body or brain leaving you feeling sleepy or slow.
- Stimulation – Stimulation such as physical activity and mental challenges “exercise” your neurons and are essential to keep them active and healthy. Exercise also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor and supports mitochondrial function.
- Support the brain with nutrition.
- Reduce inflammation with resveratrol, turmeric, and fish oils.
- Optimize with vitamins and supplements.
- Provide neurotransmitter support.
OPTIMIZE YOUR BRAIN WITH GUT REPAIR AND DETOXIFICATION
Healthy brain function is not just about boosting your score on a brain game, remembering where you put your keys, or preventing dementia.
A Healthy brain equals a better quality of life. When you have optimal brain function, you are happier, and you are naturally drawn to nourish your body and mind. Ask my office for more information about a detoxification and gut-repair program using the AIP diet. You can schedule to become a new patient or a free consultation.