We’re in week 3 of our Eat to Replete series and so far we’ve debunked some confusion around diets by going back to the basics of nutrition and understanding how our bodies use the food we eat.
Today we’re going to discuss brain health and it’s connection to the gut. For people who struggle with gastrointestinal issues, it’s understood that what you’re eating is having an effect on your digestive system.
But for people who are struggling more with psychological issues, such as anxiety and depression, it’s not so obvious that your diet might be affecting your brain.
The truth is that the gut and brain are in constant communication with one another, so when one is distressed, it is highly likely the other is also.
Your Gut is Your Second Brain
I’m sure you know the feeling of butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous. And maybe you’ve experienced using your intuition, aka “following your gut”. These are just a few examples of the connection between brain health and gut health.
Let’s first dive into brain health and learn more about the nervous system.
The nervous system controls every function of the body, from our breathing to our movements and thought processes. There are 2 divisions of the nervous system, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.
The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system while the network of nerves throughout the body comprises the peripheral nervous system.
The peripheral nervous system has 2 subdivisions: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The somatic nervous system is responsible for our voluntary movements, like walking for example.
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for involuntary actions. These are actions we don’t have to think about doing, like breathing and blinking. The ANS is also what keeps your heart beating.
The gut has its own nervous system, which makes up part of the ANS, known as the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system controls the automatic functions related to the gut. This includes peristalsis (the muscular contractions that push food through the GI tract) and digestion.
What’s interesting is that the enteric nervous system operates independently from the central nervous system. Basically this means our brain doesn’t have to tell our stomach to digest our food.
However, these two nervous systems are in constant communication with each other.
Neurons, or nerve cells, create neurotransmitters which are chemical messengers that allow neurons to communicate with one another.
This is how the brain chemically communicates with the rest of the body; neurotransmitters move from neuron to neuron until they reach their destination.
Our bodies make different neurotransmitters for different purposes, some of which you might be familiar with.
Serotonin, dopamine, GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), and norepinephrine are the 4 main neurotransmitters responsible for regulating our moods. Studies have linked low levels of these neurotransmitters to various psychological disorders.
The gut plays a role in brain health because not only does the brain produce neurotransmitters, but the gut does too! Not only that, but your gut actually produces MORE neurotransmitters than your brain.
Therefore, efficient production of necessary neurotransmitters is heavily dependent on the health of your gut.
Leaky Gut and Brain Health
You might already be familiar with leaky gut, but if you’re not, here’s a quick rundown.
Tight junctions between intestinal cells make up our gut lining, and these junctions only allow nutrients to pass through into our bloodstream.
But due to poor diet, stress, environmental toxins, etc., these junctions can become compromised and no longer tight. When this happens, bacteria, viruses, parasites, and undigested food particles are able to pass through and be absorbed into our bloodstream.
This is known as leaky gut aka intestinal permeability. But because bacteria, viruses, parasites, and undigested food particles shouldn’t not be there, the body triggers an immune response in order to fight these “foreign invaders”.
Inflammation rises then comes back down to a normal level once the body eliminates the invaders.
The problem arises when leaky gut becomes chronic; if we constantly come in contact with toxins through diet, stress, or the environment, our bodies have to fight off invaders at all times and inflammation never has a chance to come back down.
Chronic inflammation often leads to many diseases down the road.
Leaky gut plays a big role when it comes to your brain health. When you have leaky gut, the toxic burden in your body is high. These toxins compete for the nutrients in your food so they can stay alive.
You might be thinking you’re eating healthy and feeding your body good vitamins and minerals. But the truth is the toxins use those vitamins and minerals to thrive, causing YOUR cells to go unnourished.
As a result, nutrient deficiency goes hand in hand with leaky gut because your body is not able to absorb what it needs to function.
The body requires adequate nutrients in order to produce neurotransmitters. But when leaky gut is present, these nutrients aren’t available.
For example, B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, and potassium are 4 big nutrients used in the production of neurotransmitters. Unfortunately these are the first nutrients to be depleted in a non-absorbing gut.
How Do Anti-Depressants Work?
When doctors diagnose a patient with anxiety or depression because of low levels of neurotransmitters, they are quick to prescribe medications instead of getting to the root cause of the issue.
For example, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) is a commonly prescribed antidepressant.
This drug works by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin in the brain. This allows more serotonin to be available in the body.
SSRIs don’t help the body produce more serotonin, but allow the body to use what it has more effectively. But instead of blocking the reuptake of serotonin, why don’t we figure out why there isn’t enough serotonin being produced to begin with?
Heal Your Gut to Help Your Brain
Although drugs can temporarily help in severe cases of anxiety and depression, they often cause secondary side effects.
Think about it, these drugs are blocking a natural biochemical function in the body, causing other body functions to have to compensate in order for this to happen. This is why we get side effects.
First step to healing leaky gut would be to clean up your diet, and an elimination diet is a great way to do that. An elimination diet involves removing all toxic and inflammatory foods from your diet for at least 3-4 weeks.
This gives your gut a chance to rest and allow the body to get inflammation levels back down. Once your gut lining has strengthened, toxic foods won’t have such a destructive effect on your health.
When everything is in balance (i.e. inflammation levels are normal), the gut can do what it needs to do for optimal health (including brain health).
Taking probiotics in conjunction with a whole foods diet can also help with leaky gut. Probiotics supply good bacteria that the gut requires to function at its best.
Need help getting started? I recently wrote a blog specifically about the elimination diet. Check it out here.
If you want to go further and really dive into healing your gut, I’d love to help! Call 678-335-5566 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consult.
Thank you for tuning in and I’ll talk to you again next week!