How your Gut Affects your Brain
Did you know that your gut has its own brain? The enteric nervous system is a complex bundle of neurons that is tucked away in the lining of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. Like the brain, it has its own set of neurotransmitters for sending messages between nerve cells, and it has the ability to learn and remember. The brain and the enteric nervous system are actually developed from the same fetal tissue, but they are considered separate entities. They are connected by a long nerve "cable" known as the vagus nerve, and the two systems are in constant communication through neurotransmitter feedback along this nerve pathway.
Referring to a certain presentiment as a "gut feeling" is not so far off the mark; and having "butterflies in your stomach" when you are feeling anxious is more than just a metaphor. If what goes on in the brain can affect the enteric nervous system, then it is not surprising that what goes on in the gut can have a direct impact on the brain.
Allergens, infections in the gut, toxins, and malabsorption of nutrients can severely alter the chemical balance of the brain. Peptides (proteins) from improperly digested food can disrupt the communication between gut and brain to such an extent that digestive problems are directly linked to mood and behavioral disorders, including depression, ADHD, autoimmune issues, psychosis, and autism.
Gut Brain Balance
A healthy digestive system is full of beneficial bacteria. These bacteria make vitamins that are essential to our health, such as vitamin K (needed for bone formation and blood clotting); and biotin, a B-complex vitamin necessary for activating enzymes that convert food to energy. The good bacteria also regulate the metabolism of cholesterol, detoxify poisons, and help to maintain a normal pH balance in the stomach.
As long as these beneficial organisms are in charge, the gut functions efficiently and sends positive feedback to the brain.
On the other hand, there are many things that can affect proper balance in the gut. "Bad" bacteria, toxins in food, food allergens, yeast, and undigested food particles can precipitate a series of neurological and immune system responses that interfere with healthy brain function and disrupt communication between the brain and the rest of the body.
- Bad bacteria produce toxins that trigger the immune system in the gut. The brain is alerted to inflammation by the immune system via protein molecules known as cytokines; in response, the brain releases stress hormones, and neurotransmitter levels are altered. This can lead to a variety of mental health problems:
> anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder;
> impaired cognitive function.
- Partially digested food proteins called peptides are toxic to the gut and can interfere with gut-brain
communication. These toxins can cause mood and behavioral problems such as:
> autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, diabetes,
thyroid disease, and multiple sclerosis.
- Fermentation of starches produces toxic levels of ammonia, which can result damage to brain cells, causing:
> Cognitive impairment;
> Obsessive-compulsive disorder;
> Emotional disturbances.
© 2009 Aristo Vojdani, PhD
What causes imbalance in the gut?
Digestive system balance can be upset by a number of elements, including diet, medications, stress, toxins and other environmental factors.
- Poor diet is a big contributor to brain-gut imbalances. A diet low in fiber and high in added sugars and preservatives can alter the environment in the gut, allowing the bad bacteria to take over.
- Food allergies like Celiac disease (gluten intolerance) can cause inflammation and malabsorption of nutrients.
- Medications such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, steroids, and acid blockers can all prevent the digestive system from doing its job properly.
- Environmental toxins like heavy metals can damage normal function of the gut and prevent absorption of important nutrients.
- Alcohol can damage the lining of the gut, allowing toxins to leak into the blood stream.
- Excessive stress can cause damage to the intestinal lining as well, disrupting proper digestive function.
- Overgrowth of yeast and bacteria can change the environment and prevent proper nutrient absorption.
When any of these occur, gut-brain balance is thrown into chaos. Neurotransmitters send faulty messages, causing a multitude of health problems; the body is also prevented from absorbing the nutrients it needs to maintain healthy function.
Symptoms of Gut-Brain Imbalance:
If you experience any of the following symptoms, chances are good that your digestive system is out of balance, spelling bad news for your health:
- Nausea after taking dietary supplements;
- Canker sores, sores on the tongue;
- White coating on the tongue;
- Chronic heartburn;
- Diarrhea, constipation, or abdominal pain;
- Chronic yeast infections;
- Craving for sweets/carbohydrates;
- Chronic fatigue;
- Psoriasis or eczema;
- Acne or rosacea;
- Mood disorders like anxiety or depression;
- Behavioral disorders such as autism or ADD/ADHD.
Testing for Gastrointestinal Dysfunction
If you are suffering from any of the above symptoms, or if you believe you are at risk for imbalance due to stress, overuse of medications, alcohol consumption, or dietary concerns, it is recommended that you be tested for digestive dysfunction. There are a number of tests available which can help to determine the cause of your symptoms and indicate the proper treatment.
- H. Pylori testing can detect a common bacterial infection in your stomach and small intestine. H. Pylori tests consist of either a blood antibody test, stool sample, stomach biopsy, or urea breath test.
- CBC (Complete Blood Count) testing can pinpoint abnormalities in white blood cells which can be an indication of infection.
- Breath testing for small bacterial overgrowth can be used to diagnose lactose intolerance, Celiac disease, Crohn's disease (inflammatory bowel disease), and IBS.
- IgG Food Allergy testing detects antibodies produced by food allergies.
- Digestive stool analysis can uncover problems with metabolic function, nutrient absorption, immune function, and digestive enzyme activity.
- Intestinal permeability tests can detect leaky gut syndrome, which is linked to many physical and mental health issues.
- Organic acids tests look for overgrowth of yeast and harmful intestinal bacteria.
- Urine Peptides are globally associated with an increase in neurologic and psychiatric imbalance.
Treatment for Digestive Dysfunction
For all of the health issues that can be caused by an imbalance in the gut, digestive dysfunction can be treated relatively easily.
- Remove yeast and other harmful organisms from your gut by eliminating the foods that they thrive on, including sugars and refined carbohydrates.
- Eliminate common food allergens such as milk, soy, wheat, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, and fish from the diet for 6 weeks, then reintroduce them slowly, one at a time, to uncover any food sensitivities you may have.
- Repair leaky gut with nutrients that heal the intestinal lining, such as zinc, glutamine (an amino acid needed for digestion), and essential fatty acids such as Omega-3 and GLA.
- Replace depleted digestive enzymes with daily supplements.
- Replenish good bacteria with probiotics.
- Repair inflammation in the gut caused by food allergies with daily quercitin, a plant-based flavonoid which has healing properties.
By following these simple steps to better digestive health, you can restore balance to your gut. By improving digestive function, you will feel energized and healthy; with your enteric nervous system working properly, you will experience increased mental clarity and a greatly improved sense of well-being and emotional balance.