The Gut-Brain Connection
Most of us can relate to the experience of having butterflies in our stomach, or to a visceral gut-wrenching feeling, and how often are we told not to ignore our “gut-instinct” or “gut-feeling” when making a decision. We seem to understand on some level, just what an integral role it plays in our lives, far beyond the physical. We understand that it is part of the core foundation of who we are emotionally and intuitively. Even from our simple slang, it’s clear just how symbolically connected the gut is to our emotions. The truth is, the gut is where our strength resides - both physically and emotionally. Now, there’s tangible proof to support these popular metaphors.
Your gut is one of the key foundations of your health. Its connection to the brain and how it affects our day-to-day thoughts and decisions is undeniable. The state of your gut can reflect one’s overall wellbeing. Fortunately, there are some simple steps we can take to heal and repair a damaged or inflamed gut.
What is the gut?
Research has shown that the body is actually composed of more bacteria than cells. The bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms that comprise the body's microflora actually outnumber your body's cells 10 to 1. We are more bug than human!
Collectively, these trillions of bacteria are called the microbiome. Most of those bacteria reside in our gut (75-125 trillion), and they play multiple roles in our overall health.
The gut is no longer seen as an entity with the sole purpose of helping with all aspects of digestion. It’s also being considered as a key player in regulating inflammation, immunity, and brain balance.
A healthy gut consists of different combinations of bacteria for different people, and this diversity maintains wellness. A shift away from “normal” gut microbiota diversity is called dysbiosis, which may contribute to disease. In light of this, the microbiome has become the focus of much research attention as a new way of understanding autoimmune, gastrointestinal, and even brain disorders.
The second brain
Our gut microbiota play a vital role in our physical and psychological health via its own neural network: the enteric nervous system (ENS), a complex system of about 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut.
The ENS is sometimes called the “second brain,” and it is actually created from the same tissues as our central nervous system during fetal development. Therefore, it has many structural and chemical parallels to the brain. Just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons in your gut - over 100,000. Neurons in the gut outnumber neurons in the spinal cord; some 95% of the body’s serotonin resides in the gut, not the brain! Gut bacteria make over 30 neurotransmitters including serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, dopamine, and GABA.
These two systems are connected via the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem down to your abdomen. It is now well established that the vagus nerve is the primary route your gut bacteria use to transmit information to your brain.
Visceral feelings and gut instincts are literally emotional intuitions transferred up to your brain via the vagus nerve. Signals from the vagus nerve traveling from the gut to the brain have been linked to modulating mood and distinctive types of fear and anxiety. Messages also travel "downstream" from your conscious mind through the vagus nerve, signaling your organs to create an inner-calm so you can “rest-and-digest” during times of safety, or to prepare your body for “fight-or-flight” in dangerous situations.
Until recently, it was believed that emotional responses could cause gut imbalance. The brain sends signals to your gut, which is why stress and other emotions can contribute to gastrointestinal symptoms. Now we know that gut imbalances can lead to anxiety, depression, and foster imbalances in the brain.
While many think of their brain as the organ in charge, your gut actually sends far more information to your brain than your brain sends to your gut. You've probably experienced the visceral sensation of butterflies in your stomach when you're nervous, or had an upset stomach when you were very angry or stressed. The flip side is also true, in that problems in your gut can directly impact your mental health, leading to issues like anxiety and depression.
These bacteria influence your health, your mood, and even the kinds of decisions you make. Neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter states in his most recent book, Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain — for Life , that a dysfunctional microbiome can be the root cause of numerous brain-related conditions including ADHD, anxiety, autism, depression, carb cravings, memory loss, concentration problems, chronic inflammation, and more.
Ideally, there’s a normal balance of both “good” and “bad” bacteria in your gut at all times. But this balance can quickly get out of whack from antibiotics, stress, and even the food you eat.
Damage to the gut
Your gut bacteria are vulnerable to your diet and lifestyle. If you eat a lot of sugar, refined grains, and genetically engineered foods, your gut bacteria are going to be compromised because processed foods in general will destroy healthy microflora and feed bad bacteria and yeast. Your gut bacteria are also very sensitive to and can be harmed by:
- antibiotics - destroy bacteria
- fluoridated water - calcifies pineal gland
- conventionally-raised meats and other animal products, as CAFO animals are routinely fed low-dose antibiotics, plus genetically engineered grains, which have also been implicated in the destruction of gut flora
- antibacterial soap
- agricultural chemicals and heavy metals, which feed bad bacteria
- processed foods (as the excessive sugars, along with otherwise "dead" nutrients, feed pathogenic bacteria)
- GMOs - destroy beneficial bacteria in gut; disrupts cascade in the brain (no trypt, no serotonin, no blood sugar regulation)
- stress response - adrenaline decreases HCL, impairs ability to digest; hinders good bacteria and grow bad bacteria
- lipopolysaccharides - toxic byproducts of bad bacteria that have numerous negative effects on your brain:
- lowering levels of the mood-enhancing neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin
- causing damage to the hippocampus, the area of the brain considered the seat of the memory
- contributing to short-term memory loss
- increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol
- increasing inflammation, an underlying cause of depression
- increasing free radical damage to brain cells
Healing the gut to heal the brain
1. Remove - sensitivities, allergens, pathogens, toxins (Splenda can reduce your number of good bacteria by 50%; use Cilantro, parsley, garlic and spirulina to remove heavy metals)
2. Replace - fiber, missing nutrients, enzymes
3. Repopulate - prebiotics (every raw fruit and veg) to feed good bacteria; foods high in prebiotic fibers include asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bamboo shoots, bananas, barley, chicory, leeks, garlic, jicama, lentils, mustard greens, onions, tomatoes, and yacón, a natural sweetener. Eating prebiotic foods alone can reduce stress, anxiety and depression; probiotics
4. Repair - gut lining, HCL (celery juice)
5. Rebalance - lifestyle, stress response/breathing (stress = #1 cause of leaky gut)
The most empowering aspect to the gut-brain connection is the understanding that many of our daily lifestyle choices play a role in mediating our overall wellness. This whole-body approach to healthcare and wellness continues to show its value in our longevity, well-being, and quality of life: that both physical and mental health go hand-in-hand.