Did you know your gut can talk to your brain?
By Michal Cooling CNT
Highly underestimated in its impact on health, the brain-gut axis is imbalanced in most of our chronic patients. In simple terms, the brain talks to the gut, and the gut talks to the brain. In fact, several parts of the brain are responsible directly for normal gut function. The gut also sends messages to the brain through gut peptides (protein molecules). Immune cells in the gut and brain also produce and react with molecules between each other. Imbalances can be from gut to brain, brain to gut, or a vicious cycle of the combination of the two. If the brain doesn’t work, neither will the gut, in fact that is one of the first symptoms of brain imbalance. If the gut doesn’t work, neither will the brain. This means therapy needs to go beyond a specific diet or anti-infection protocol, but to support the mechanisms involved in the brain-gut axis.
The brain controls movement of food through the digestive tract, digestive enzymes, and parts of the autonomic nervous system which delivers blood carrying nutrients that support the intestines to name a few.
Poor brain health is reflected by:
- poor memory
- the inability to find words
- difficulty learning new things
- brain fatigue, etc
Poor brain health leads to:
- yeast and bacteria fermentation and overgrowth
- inability to eliminate waste products (constipation)
- increased load on the liver
- difficulty digesting food (protein, starches, fats)
- constant episodes of bloating and gas
- alternating constipation and diarrhea
- gallstone formation
- irritable bowel syndrome
- other bowel disorders
- leaky gut that causes inflammation in the brain and body
- bacterial deposits in the body, etc
These symptoms are often referred to as “normal” or “aging” and aren’t addressed by conventional medicine. We address the brain-gut axis through functional neurology and functional medicine and create individualized wellness protocols to address the root cause of your symptoms.
All systems rely on digestion, but perhaps one of the most important is the computer-control of your entire body, the brain. Chemical messengers (molecules) in the gut affect the brain’s immune cells. It also affects neurotransmitters, which helps your brain function clearly and with positive mood. In addition leaky gut means leaky brain, and inflammation in the gut leads to inflammation in the brain, which causes degeneration.
Poor gut health is reflected by:
- Mood disorders
- Parkinson’s disease
- Memory impairment
- Learning difficulties
- Psychiatric and neurological disorders.
Gut peptides (signaling-proteins) aren’t the only tie between the gut and the brain, flora (or good bacteria) in the gut not only influence our gut health, but brain health as well. Imbalance in the flora are tied closely with depression and other mood disorders. Research has shown that our gut bacteria affects the health of our brain, and that psychiatric symptoms can actually be caused by imbalance in the digestive bacteria.
Leaky gut, is another significant contributor to major depressive disorder. Researchers have found that it leads to deposits of bacteria into the brain causing neurochemical changes, leading to depression. This is serious business. Depression can be caused by neurotransmitter deficiencies, but in another model, is caused by systemic inflammation from various sources (IBS, leaky gut, etc). Inflammation, as we already established causes degeneration and alters nerve cell function and communication. Inflammation further degenerates the blood brain barrier, and shifts what enzymes work affecting hormones and neurotransmitters.
Just like a leaky gut equals a leaky brain, a gut on fire equals a brain on fire. And the heart spreads this fire systemically with every heart beat. Crohn’s and IBS (inflammatory conditions of the gut) cause white-matter destruction and lesions on the brain which can be identified by an MRI. To identify this is easy, since the responses can be immediately observed. When both the brain and gut on are fire, one doesn’t experience pain, but instead experiences bloating followed immediately by brain fog. Inflammation decreases the activity of the nerves, causing brain fog.
Current scientific literature clearly shows that neurochemical function in the gut affects neurochemical function in the brain. This is no surprise to many of our patients who take on the task of personally observing their responses to food, and find immediate changes in mood, not being able to find words, focus, or concentration. Most people don’t take the time to develop a personal relationship to food and become a food detective with the goal of achieving desired healing. We recommend starting a diet diary and personal observations to food journal for this purpose. This is also why identification and food allergy elimination and intolerances that are often hidden is so important.
Leaky gut can also cause autoimmunity (self-attack) in the brain and nervous system. When there is inflammation in the gut, it becomes leaky, allowing large undigested compounds, toxins and bacteria to enter the bloodstream, circulation, and brain. Because foods have not been digested and broken down to an acceptable form, it is recognized as foreign and an immune system attack ensues, creating food sensitivity responses. This causes more inflammation, more leaky gut, and more exaggerated symptoms. Diet, lifestyle, medications, infections, stress, immune and hormone imbalances, decreased brain function, and lack of enzymes, neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, intestinal flora all promote inflammation and fuels the vicious cycle. Each of these triggers are common in people with post-trauma stress and anxiety disorders, chronic illness, and pain. Many people suffer from this cycle for many years. Once the digestive system is damaged by this cycle, its ability to digest and absorb is compromised. Malnutrition causes inflammation, leaky gut, food sensitivities, bacterial overgrowths, yeast overgrowths, and imbalance of the immune cells in the gut.
Normal function is when the digestive system releases enzymes to break down food into small particles that can be absorbed and utilized by the body. Only these small particles are allowed to cross into the bloodstream. Anything that is not essential for nutrient utilization is normally too big to pass through the gut barrier, including large proteins, pathogens, undigested particles, etc. This barrier system is a filter to maximize the absorption of digested proteins to be used for metabolism and utilize nutrients. This barrier’s system, in leaky gut, becomes less efficient and allows large molecules and pathogens to pass through. This triggers the immune system in the gut. This means that the large molecules become a trigger, for which the immune system has no tolerance. This causes inflammation molecules to be released into circulation, which turn on inflammation in the cells of the brain, joints, heart, skin epithelium, blood vessels, and other tissues of the body. Immune imbalance is precisely what causes the loss of ability to recognize self and non-self, promoting autoimmunity.
Eliminating the triggers and balancing the mechanisms of leaky gut are priority before supportive healing can occur. Dietary triggers include alcohol, gluten, casein, processed foods, excess sugar, fast food, and other foods that one is sensitive to as well as lack of fiber in the diet and nutritional deficiencies. Medications that specifically involve mechanisms causing leaky gut are corticosteroids, antibiotics, antacids, and xenobiotics. Though any infection can increase conditions for leaky gut, H. pylori, bacterial overgrowth, yeast overgrowth, intestinal virus and parasitic infections are the most common. In fact, they are so common that healthy individuals should cleanse from gut pathogens once or twice a year. Stress mechanisms specifically lead to leaky gut through increased Cortisol and other substances, making it key to target leaky gut with targeted nutrition. Anything that induces the stress response, as discussed previously, such as lack of sleep or physically overtraining, increases the risk for leaky gut. Decreased thyroid function and other hormone deficiencies lead to leaky gut. Brain trauma, stroke, and neurodegeneration lead to leaky gut. And metabolic conditions, such as inflammation and autoimmunity lead to leaky gut, as well as imbalanced blood sugar.
Gluten is significantly inflammatory because of how it’s been altered by hybridization and deamidation. Inflammation caused by gluten has clearly been shown to lead to leaky gut. Dairy and whey are also high inflammatory. When these foods are consumed every day, they create a pro-inflammatory diet, which leads to leaky gut. Unless ruled out by lab tests, a person may have gluten and/or dairy sensitivity or celiac disease, cross-reactivity with other foods, or other food sensitivities, in which case, leaky gut is almost guaranteed. Drinking several drinks in one sitting more than once a week, will lead to leaky gut. And the most common cause of leaky gut seems to be food intolerances or sensitivities.
We decide upon addressing leaky gut based on symptom identification and also use one of the most reliable leaky gut tests available from Cyrex Laboratories, which measures functional ranges as well as laboratory ranges. The healing protocol for most includes an anti-inflammatory and leaky gut diet, supporting the gut nutritionally, and improving the brain through vagal function to reestablish the brain-gut axis.
Nutritional and dietary support specific to leaky gut involves a 30-60 day protocol of eliminating possible inflammatory triggers from the diet while nutritionally supporting the healing of the gut and intestinal flora through targeted nutrients. Some may need to continue a modified version for much longer, and others may need maintenance only support for the long-term. There is no caloric limit in this program. The dietary restrictions target foods that promote intestinal yeast overgrowth, inflammatory proteins, inflammatory lectins and alcohol.
“For those battling a history of weight issues or an eating disorder, this diet can be filled with emotional triggers. In these cases I highly recommend support for underlying subconscious beliefs about food, eating, and your body. Ideas include hypnotherapy, emotional freedom technique (EFT) workshops or instruction, guided meditations and visualizations. You will find plenty of instruction online.
Subconscious beliefs aside, many are pleasantly surprised to find cravings and obsessions with food diminish or disappear once they remove immune reactive foods, stabilize blood sugar, and eat a nutrient-dense diet. Make sure you don’t allow yourself to get too hungry or hypoglycemic by including sufficient fat and protein in your diet. Also, cravings are often a disguise for thirst, so stay hydrated and add electrolytes to your water if need be.” (Kharrazian, 2013)
GI system support includes supporting absorption, bacterial environment, immune system, microbial balance, intestinal lining, intestinal immune system, and intestinal environment, and food sensitivities. This can be done through the following nutritional support.
To support the brain-gut axis, we activate the vagal nuclei with exercises, exercise to increase BDNF and mitochondrial biogenesis in the brain, and check brain areas with Assessment Forms. To support the gut-brain axis, we implement a gut-repair protocol, and support the intestines with nutrition. To support the vicious cycle of the brain-gut axis and gut-brain axis I provide simultaneous support through both gut and brain strategies.
Nutritional support includes glycoproteins that support the intestinal mucous membrane, plant sterols which supports the enteric nervous system, and extracts with mucilage content that soothes the intestines. L-glutamine, deglycyrrhizinated licorice, aloe leaf extract, tillandsia usneoides, marshmallow extract, methylsulfonylmethane, gamma orzyanol, slippery elm bark, german chamomile, marigold flower extract, wormwood extract, olive leaf extract, garlic extract, black walnut extract, barberine-containing botanicals, yerba mansa, oregano extract, undecylenic acid, caprylic acid, uva ursi, cat’s claw, pau d’arco, saccharomyces boulardii, lactobacillus sporogenes, DDS-1 lactobacillus acidophilus, and arabinogalactan are all nutrients that support gut healing, elimination of parasites, yeast, and mold.