The Connection Between Gut Health & the Mind
Hmmm … “I’ve got a gut feeling” this is going to be a great column.
Do you get “butterflies in your stomach” when you are nervous or upset? Then you’d better “go with your gut” and read on!
These colloquialisms are truer than simple literary comments imply. The connection between the gut and the mind is very real and very much influences the way we think and feel.
From the earliest stages of development the gut and the brain share a common source. As a developing embryo about the size of a walnut, the ridge called the “neural crest” is the earliest formation of our nervous system. At a later point in development the neural crest literally divides into separate pieces, with one part becoming the brain and spinal cord while the other joins the gut, henceforth being called the “enteric nervous system” or the second brain.
These two “brains” are forever linked by the vagus nerve with most of the information traveling from the gut toward the brain. The gut has 100 million neurons — more than are found in the spinal column or the entire peripheral nervous system. As much of 95 percent of the “feel-good” brain chemical called serotonin and about 30 other neurotransmitters are produced in the gut. How the gut “feels” has a direct impact on the brain; and a healthy, happy gut leads to a healthy, happy mind.
The gut-associated lymph tissue (GALT) surrounds the gut and produces most of our infection-fighting white blood cells called lymphocytes. Everything that passes through the gut wall immediately encounters the GALT, which is vital in keeping toxins and microbial invaders from passing undetected out of the gut into the general circulation. If gut absorption and processing is not running smoothly then the immune system is excessively triggered, causing the release of inflammatory chemicals, which have far reaching effects throughout the body, including the brain.
There are several known conditions in which an unhealthy gut will provoke the GALT. “Leaky gut” refers to a damaged gut lining, with literal gaps in the gut wall. An imbalance or deficiency of the beneficial gut bacteria is known as “dysbiosis.” Both leaky gut and dysbiosis can lead to inappropriate triggering of the GALT. Delayed food allergies are also common, affecting most of us to some degree, with certain foods provoking an immune reaction 12 to 72 hours after eating. Even healthy foods such as whole wheat can be stoking the immune system, causing decades of “simmering” inflammation.
Science is recognizing the profound impact that inflammatory chemicals have on brain function, detailing the minute connections that link inflammation and mood disorders. Inflammation changes brain chemistry, and perhaps most symptoms of brain-neurotransmitter imbalance. Depression, anxiety and attention-deficit disorder may be ultimately linked to underlying immune dysfunction, which is so often triggered from the gut.
We routinely find impaired gut function as the “root cause” of cognitive and mood disorders. Symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, irritability, impatience, or being easily distracted are often linked to gut dysfunction or delayed food allergies. I routinely observe healing the gut and elimination of food allergens lead to resolution of depression, anxiety and attention-deficit disorders. Even autism and schizophrenia have documented connections to impaired gut health.
Great Gut Health
Insuring gut health starts with a healthy diet. Our ancestors evolved over generations while eating a Paleolithic diet of fresh fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and wild game. We inherit our family “culture” of beneficial gut bacteria, and the specific balances of good and bad bacteria that inhabit our gut depend upon our diet.
Modern diet changes that include excess sugar, processed grains and inflammatory fats wreak havoc on our native gut bacteria. The plethora of food additives and chemicals in our food and water has an impact on gut ecology. Medications and antibiotics can destroy the good bacteria that help keep our gut healthy. All these impacts on gut health can indeed lead to changes in how we think and feel.
Taking a broad-spectrum probiotic is a simple measure that supports gut health. An amino acid called L-glutamine can help heal an inflamed leaky gut. My favorite is a special formulation from Douglas Labs call “Intestamine” that provides L-glutamine and other nutrients necessary for gut health. Colostrum powder is another great supplement to heal leaky gut. Numerous plant-derived supplements such as aloe, mallow, olive leaf extract and slippery elm are soothing to the gut.
Testing for delayed food allergies involves getting a simple blood test, but be wary of the results depending upon the lab used for testing! I’ve used 12 different labs in as many years and found that not all labs do food-allergy testing well. We get consistent reproducible results and great patient outcomes from Immunolabs, and it is the only lab I trust for food allergy testing.
A stool test called “comprehensive digestive stool analysis” from Genova Diagnostics is another great test that provides information about good and bad bacteria, pathogens, enzymes, inflammation and chemical processing in the gut. Another way to check your gut bacteria is to sign up for the American Gut Project and for $99 you can get an analysis of your own gut bacteria while contributing to research that is mapping the gut ecology of millions of Americans.
Gut health is a foundation for overall health and I believe we’ll see the restoration of beneficial gut flora and the repair of leaky gut as paramount achievements in mental health as well as medicine in general. Hippocrates said more than 2,000 years ago that “all disease begins in the gut” and modern science is just starting to realize how very correct he was.
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.