Understanding the Gut-Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis is the complex and fascinating connection between the gastrointestinal system and the central nervous system. The connection between these seemingly unrelated organs has been long reflected in our language: “I have butterflies in my stomach”, or “I had a gut feeling about this.” The intricate network of communication between our gut and the brain influences our overall health, and when it becomes disrupted, it can lead to a variety of health issues. In this article, we will explore the relationship between common conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, yeast overgrowth, and inflammatory bowel disease and our mental and cognitive health.
Understanding the Gut-Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional communication system that links the gut and the brain. It involves a complex network of nerves, hormones, and signaling molecules. This connection allows the gut to send messages to the brain and vice versa. It plays a crucial role in regulating various bodily functions, including digestion, metabolism, immune responses, and even mood.
The Connection between the Gut and the Brain:
- Stress and digestion: Under stress, our body prioritizes “running away from the enemy” and “getting ready to fight” over digestion. As a result, our gut motility may be impaired, leading to diarrhea, constipation, or reflux. Stress also lowers the production of “digestive juices” and blood flow to the digestive tract, increasing the risk of indigestion, ulcers, and inflammatory bowel disease flare-ups.
- Altered Gut Microbiota: Emerging research suggests that the composition of the gut microbiota can influence both gut health as well as mental health. Healthy gut microbes produce compounds that improve our brain development in childhood, learning, mood, and memory. Common mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and variety of neurodegenerative disorders from Parkinson’s disease to Alzheimer’s have been associated with bacterial imbalances in the gut and “leaky gut”. A healthy microbiome improves your chances of a healthy brain long into your life. Improving gut microbiome and correcting leaky gut has been associated with improvements in mood and brain function, decreased need for medications, and anecdotally, even reversal of Alzheimer’s. (Dr. Susan Hazan’s case study).
- Leaky gut (increased intestinal permeability): There is an undeniable link between leaky gut and brain pathology. Leaky gut is unfortunately increasingly common, due to our Western diet, artificial sweeteners, antibiotic exposure (often through the meat of animals treated with them, not just our own prescriptions), pesticide residues in our food (especially glyphosate), stress, and other lifestyle and environmental factors. The good news is that it can be reversed if diagnosed and addressed, such as at InSpero Medical in Edwards.
- Food sensitivities and intolerances: These issues can not only cause digestive symptoms, but they have also been linked with anxiety, insomnia, brain fog, and even autism. Often, the “mechanism of injury” includes mast cell activation and the release of histamine and a host of inflammatory mediators. As with leaky gut, with proper diagnoses and treatment, these conditions can be ameliorated or even reversed.
- Vicious cycle: Gut inflammation can often lead to a vicious cycle perpetuating anxiety via its effect on the brain, which then perpetuates gut inflammation, microbial imbalance, and so forth. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, this cycle can continue to impair our health and quality of life. Once diagnosed and addressed with dietary management (ranging from gluten-free diet, low FODMAP diet, low histamine diet, or avoidance of specific food triggers), regular use of stress reduction techniques such as meditation and integrative medicine trained physician recommended dietary supplements, healing can begin.