The Gut-Brain Connection

This blogpost is for you if:

  • you want to learn about the gut-brain connection

  • you have chronic gut issues (IBS, bloating, constipation)

  • you have brain fog, memory issues, or have had head trauma

When I say the word ‘health’, the strength of your gut-brain connection likely doesn’t come to mind. In fact, we have done a great job of segmenting health into different categories, as opposed to looking at health as an interconnection between all systems.
One of the connections that fascinates me the most in the gut-brain connection. This is likely due to the fact that I am also trained as a therapist, and have had years of gut issues. When I learned about this connection,I started to identify gut-brain connection issues in those around me. It became clear to me that many of the individuals who sought therapy for anxiety, or depression also had corresponding gut issues.

From the Gut to Brain

The microbiome is a key factor in our entire health, not just our gut health. The microbiome consists of a combination of bacteria (pathogenic, opportunistic and healthy bacteria). It’s composition varies from person to person. It is estimated that there are 100,000,000,000,000 micro-organisms in the gut. Thats more than 10 times the number of cells in a human being. The health of our microbiome plays a large role in our own brain health and mental health including depression and anxiety.
There is actually class of molecules known as gut-brain peptides such as substance P, neurotensin, galanin, cholecystokinin and other immune messengers. Gut-brain peptides serve functions such as regulating metabolism, appetite, and addictive behaviours. For example, poor transmission of a gut-brain peptide called neurotensin is believed to play a role in schizophrenia and drug addiction.
The health state of our gut is correlated with the brain’s health state. When the gut is exposed to infection, environmental toxins or foods that it is intolerant or healthy foods (read: greasy, fried, high in fructose), the lining of the gut becomes damaged and leaky. The body then looses its ability to produce enough enzymes to adequately breakdown food, and unwanted food and pathogens that are supposed to stay in the intestine escape into the blood stream. Some of the ‘invaders’ are molecules called LPS, (found in the membrane of bacteria). In a state of leaky gut, they can travel throughout the body.

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The body views the ‘escaped’ partially digested food, LPS and pathogens as invaders and they are flagged by the immune system, which then goes on high alert. It is like a large group of people invading a country where they don’t belong – eventually the army of the invaded country is going to start to do something about it. In the body, the ‘invasion’ causes an immune response which leads to inflammation. LPS is one of the key elements responsible for triggering an inflammatory response in the gut and throughout the entire body, including the brain. A leaky gut can occur for decades, and eventually the situation begins to cause serious health issues. LPS can trigger depression, which is known as the cytokine model of depression. In her book, Mind of Your Own, Dr. Kelly Brogan talks more about the link between depression and inflammation. Chronic, unaddressed leaky gut can also result in autoimmunity. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) (ulcerative colitis and Chron’s disease) can result in lesions in white matter in the brain. The list of health consequences goes on.

From the Brain to the Gut

The relationship works the other way around as well. Most of the brain’s job, actually 90% of it, is not voluntary. It is responsible for controling metabolic functions like heart rate, respiration and digestion. There is a nerve, maybe you have heard of it, called the vagus nerve that runs from the brain stem to all different parts of the body, including the gut. The vagus nerve controls a lot of parasympathetic functions. The parasympathetic system is responsible for the ‘rest & digest’ functions and is one of two components of your autonomic nervous system (the other component is the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for ‘fight and flight).
The vagus nerve connects to the enteric nervous system which is embedded in the lining of the gastrointestinal system. The job of the vagus nerve with regards to the gut is to control the movement of food, to ensure blood flow is directed to that part of the body, and to promote the release of digestive enzymes so your food can properly digest. The chain of command essentially goes from the brain, to the brainstem, through the vagus nerve, to the enteric nervous system.
You can probably imagine what happens when the vagal nerve isn’t working to well – your digestion isn’t going to work to well either. Chronic stomach issues such as bloating, constipation, or alternations between diaherria and constipation begin to develop, which can then lead to a tempting environment for other pathogens to take root. On the brain side of things, you might see memory loss, brain fog, challenges learning new things and difficulty finding words when you need them. In fact, our digestion is one of the first parts of the body to signal that there is likely brain degeneration going on. A few of the reasons you might see a brain to gut connection issue includes brain trauma, too much stress for too long, or longstanding gut issues that have created brain issues that have created gut issues – which ends up being a vicious cycle.
The vagal nerve, much like a muscle, needs to be worked out. If you are in a chronic state of stress and the sympathetic system becomes quite dominate, or the vagus nerve is not activated due to other reasons, it looses strength. One of the ways you can tell if you have a weak vagal nerve is to test your gag reflux. If your gag reflux is poor, then your vagus nerve likely isn’t working all that well. This is because the muscle response for the gag reflex is activated by the vagus nerve.

How to strengthen your gut-brain connection

Heal your leaky gut. You can start with a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods. Paleo is my recommendation. Other good options are the GAPS diet, the primal diet and the SCD (specific carbohydrate diet). A strick anti-inflammatory diet needs to be followed for 30-90 days). See the Leaky Gut Guide for more healing tips.
Strengthen your vagal nerve. This can be done by gargling (no salt required). Gargling activates the vagus nerve and therefore the GI tract. This can be done several times a day. Make sure that you gargle loudly, in order to really activate the muscles and nerves. Weak gargling doesn’t have the same impact. Activating your gag reflux and singing loudly are other ways to activate the vagus nerve by contract the muscles in the back of the throat.
Happy Gargling!!!!
To read more, check out Why Isn’t My Brain Working by Datis Kharrazian.
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