19 Jan 2019
“A Gut Feeling” – The Gut-Brain Connection
19 Jan 2019
Butterflies before a first date.
Nausea before a big performance.
Constipation before a big meeting.
Heartburn after a stressful, holiday dinner with the in-laws.
Uncontrollable sugar cravings while studying for a big exam.
If you have experienced any of these sensations, then you have experienced the “Gut-Brain Connection”.
The gut communicates with the brain like no other organ. As a matter of fact, the gut (the whole gastrointestinal system) is now often referred to as the ‘second brain’ because it contains the same cellular tissue and can produce many of the same chemical messengers (hormones, neurotransmitters) as the brain in your head.
The information exchange between your brain and your gut continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of your life. That is quite an intense and intimate relationship! So why are we just now starting to hear about the importance of this relationship?
Things have changed dramatically over the past few decades. The way we eat, what we eat, what we drink, our sleeping habits, the chemicals that we are exposed to, the pharmaceutical drugs that we take…..all of these things did not impact our grandparents and the generations before them, like they impact us today. We are a generation riddled with obstacles to optimal health.
Over the past few years, Western medicine has come to realize that these obstacles, along with chronic stress and inadequate sleep, greatly alter the structural integrity of the cells and the microbiome within the gastrointestinal system which ultimately alters our brain and mood.
The Physiology –
Recent studies have implicated altered brain-gut-microbiota interactions in brain disorders such as depression, anxiety, autism, Parkinson’s, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
How exactly did the gut influence these changes in the brain? Let’s take a look at the science.
The gut is home to a wide variety of TRILLIONS of microbes, mainly bacteria. When the human microbiome is challenged with changes in diet, stress or antibiotics, the physiology of the normal microbiome undergoes change. A ‘dysbiotic state’ (imbalanced state) leads to increased intestinal permeability (aka, ‘leakiness’) and allows contents such as bacteria and food particles, to leak through the intestinal wall and into the systemic circulation (the body’s blood volume), a phenomenon appropriately named “leaky gut syndrome.”
Increased intestinal permeability leads to detrimental effects on the immune system, which have been demonstrated in diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diabetes, asthma, and psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, and autism.
Inflammation of the GI tract places stress on the microbiome and alters it through the rapid release of cytokines and neurotransmitters. Combined with the gut’s “leakiness”, these molecules then travel systemically, via the blood. Elevated levels of cytokines increase the permeability (leakiness) of the blood-brain barrier. Therefore, cytokine release influences brain function, leading to anxiety, depression and memory loss.
How do I fix an unhealthy gut-brain relationship?
A growing amount of evidence demonstrates the importance of a healthy gut microbiome for patients suffering from anxiety and depression; as dysbiosis and inflammation in gastrointestinal system have been linked as potential causes of mental illness. 
Here are some ways to support a healthy gut:
- Probiotics – Probiotics have the potential to diminish the brain’s response to chronic stressors, and prevent or reverse physiologic damage to the gut. Human and animal studies of probiotics have shown reductions in anxiety and depressive symptoms. Certain strains of probiotics are more appropriate for brain-gut health than others. Look for a probiotic containing the Bifidobacteria species or ask your naturopathic doctor for help.
- Dietary changes – The importance of good nutritional intake has been explored in multiple studies. Poor diets, lacking in adequate healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, have been linked to diminished mental health in both adults and children. For some, a more drastic change in diet is required. Gluten free diets, SIBO diets, low glycemic diets and palaeolithic (‘paleo’) diets are growing in popularity as many have found these diets to be the key to achieving optimal GI function and emotional wellbeing. 
- Food sensitivity testing – We all know that food allergies can be very serious. We have all known or heard about that person with the peanut allergy who has to carry an epi-pen in their bag. However, poor reactions to foods are not always this easy to recognize. Many times the symptoms of food sensitivities go undetected as people may not know what symptoms to look for or the symptoms (acne, foggy memory, poor concentration, etc) are simply dismissed. Ignoring these symptoms and eating foods to which your body is sensitive, over a long period of time, causes a great deal of damage to the gut and can compromise one’s mental wellbeing. There are many degrees of sensitivity, from slightly sensitive to very sensitive. Talk to your healthcare practitioner about food sensitivity testing and how to interpret the results.
- Consume prebiotics – We talked about the importance of probiotics, above in number one. Now, we need to talk about the foods that these probiotics depend on in order to survive and flourish. The best sources of prebiotics are: (all consumed raw) chicory root, onions, leeks, radishes, garlic, artichoke, asparagus, and dandelion greens. As you may notice, these are not foods that we tend to eat on a regular basis so a conscious effort is required when trying to boost one’s intake of prebiotics.
- Reduce your toxic load – As mentioned above, we are a generation riddled with obstacles to optimal health. Here are five things that you can do to reduce your toxic load:
- Avoid plastic containers – switch to glass and stainless steel
- Avoid fragrance – air fresheners, scented laundry detergent, dryer sheets, candles, perfume, etc.
- Clean up your toiletries – look for clean ingredients; you should be able to pronounce them and not have to look them up in a dictionary.
- Filter your water – purchase a water filter for your drinking water and household water.
- Go organic – buy foods that are organic, free range, grass fed and wild.
Now, remember this is a ‘two way street’. So how can we support the brain, so as to promote a healthy gut?
- Rest and digest – When it’s time to eat, try to find a quiet place to sit down and enjoy your meal. Turn off your phone and television, close your laptop and focus on the food, chew carefully, enjoy the flavours and relish in the wonderful nutrients that you are giving your body.
- Deep breathing – During stressful moments, we tend to hold our breath; without even realizing it. Holding our breath deprives our brain and organs of the oxygen that they need to function. Try practicing deep breathing exercises throughout the day, especially during those stressful moments that may sneak up on you. There are many apps that you can download so as to make this more convenient and easier to remember. Some examples include: ‘Headspace’, ‘Calm- Meditate, Sleep, Relax’, ‘Prana Breath’.
- Get outside – Research shows that there is a positive correlation between serotonin synthesis and time spent in the sunlight. However, even on these Winter days, when the sun rarely makes an appearance and our days are shorter, getting outside for some fresh air is still important. Studies show that exposure to natural environments can be associated with mental health benefits. Proximity to green space has been associated with lower levels of stress and reduced symptomology for depression and anxiety.  
- Unplug –
- “Oh my gosh, I forgot my cell phone!!!”
- “Hang on a second, I have to check-in on Facebook.”
- “Yikes, I haven’t checked my phone in an hour and now I have six texts and countless emails!”
- “My eyes are killing me; I just stared at my phone and computer all day long.”
We are living in an age when we are essentially always “on call”. Cell phones, tablets, laptops, smart watches…..we jump when these things chime or vibrate and we feel disconnected and lost when we don’t have them with us.
There are many studies showing how technology can contribute to high levels of stress, strained relationships, attention deficit disorder symptoms and certain mental disorders. Consider doing a “technology detox” or at least limiting yourself from using technology during certain times of the day. For example, try turning off your cell phone right before dinner with your family and leave it off until the next morning. It won’t take long to feel the relief that comes with ‘unplugging’.
- Get some sleep – Easier said than done, I know. However, getting adequate (seven -eight hours), uninterrupted, quality sleep is VITAL in supporting emotional wellbeing. Although poor sleep has been traditionally thought of as a secondary consequence of mental health problems, contemporary views have found that sleep has a more influential role in the development and maintenance of mental health problems. A 2017 study found that “sleep treatment led to improvements in depression and improvements in anxiety, prodromal symptoms, nightmares, psychological wellbeing, and functioning, and all these improvements were maintained over time.” 
Improving sleep hygiene is the first step in achieving quality sleep. Sleep hygiene techniques include:
- establishing and committing to a nighttime routine
- eliminating all electronics in the bedroom (television, cell phone, computer, etc)
- turn off ALL devices at least 30 minutes before bed
- avoid alcohol and caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate) 6 hours before bedtime
- create the ideal environment: dark, quiet, cool temperature.
- exercise daily, but not too close to bedtime
- get fresh air every day
Having read this article, you are already on your way to a healthier you, I can feel it in my GUT!
 Mayer, Dr. Emeran. The Gut Brain Connection: How Your Gut Hold the Key To Better Brain Health. 2017. https://www.consciouslifestylemag.com/brain-gut-connection-mind/  Smith, Peter Andrey. The tantalizing links between gut microbes and the brain. 14 October 2015. https://www.nature.com/news/the-tantalizing-links-between-gut-microbes-and-the-brain-1.18557  Clapp, M. Aurora, N, Herrera L, Bhatia, M, WIlen E, Wakefield S. Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. 15 September 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5641835/ Clapp, M. Aurora, N, Herrera L, Bhatia, M, WIlen E, Wakefield S. Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. 15 September 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5641835/  Mental Health Foundation. Diet and Mental Health. October 2018. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/d/diet-and-mental-health  Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Sathyanarayana Rao, T.S., Asha, M, Ramesh, B. Jagannatha Rap, K. June 2008. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/  Young, Simon. November 2007. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/  Pearson, D. Craig, T. 21 October 2014. The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4204431/  Freeman, Daniel. Lancet Psychiatry. The effects of improving sleep on mental health (OASIS): a randomised controlled trial with mediation analysis. 4 October 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5614772/ * Photo by Paola Aguilar on Unsplash
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