Next time you have a gut feeling about something, pay attention to it. First, that speaks to intuition which is powerful at warning us about things to come but which we only think of in hindsight.
Second, know that it is your gut that is really talking to you. Yes indeed, the second brain in your gut sends messages to you all the time in communication with the brain.
Way back when we were learning about digestion and the role of the gut in our bodies, we saw the gut as one long tube starting at the mouth and ending at the rectum. Emphasis was on digestion and elimination. But the gut is much more than that.
Research has now shown that gut health affects all body systems including the mind. And in fact, the gut itself has its very own nervous system called the enteric nervous system
If you have gut problems, you may have digestive issues. That can be expected. But so much more may be wrong but most people don’t know to associate other health problems including brain health problems with gut health.
An unhealthy gut or a leaky gut leads to issues like immune health problems and leads to chronic illnesses such as hypothyroidism, PCOS, or obesity, allergies, skin problems, anxiety and depression, and of course conditions like IBS, UC diverticulitis and the list is long.
What is Leaky Gut?
Literary, it is exactly what it is sounding like. The gut, just like a pipe is leaking.
And of course, if you have a leak in your house and are not aware, so much damage can happen, right?
it is the same thing with leaky gut. Only this time the problem happens to your body, not your house.
So what is leaking and what is causing the leak?
The gut lining is made of various layers and cells, and the topmost layer is lined with cells called enterocytes that are so well tightly packed/connected together and are designed to only let in tiny ions, nutrients, and small molecules, and water that the body needs into the bloodstream.
A healthy gut has tightly packed enterocytes, a good thick mucus layer to protect the other cells and a healthy thriving community of gut microbes.
But due to some triggers such as the use of antibiotics, eating excess sugar and other toxins, inflammation occurs in the gut.
The cells that are supposed to be packed together(tight junctions) loosen, and now into the blood leaks all manner of toxic substances including bacteria, food particles, and other large molecules.
This leads to systemic inflammation.
But what is the gut-brain connection?
Now I am sure in your life, you have experienced “butterflies” in your stomach a time or two. You know that nervous sensation you get whenever you are about to undertake something that makes you uneasy.
What causes that sensation? You have had a gut feeling about something or even made decisions for which you “went with your gut feeling.”
You may also have at one time become so nervous your stools became loose, or you were nauseous with worry or nervous anxious feelings.
The reason this happens is that our guts and our nervous system are connected, with communication that s back and forth between the brain and the gut This communication is referred to as the gut-brain axis.
And this communication is made possible by the connection of the gut and the brain through the longest nerve in the human body, the vagus nerve.
You can almost visualize this like a telephone wire that sends a message back and forth from the gut to the brain and vice versa as neurotransmitters fire messages along the vagus nerve.
The enteric nervous system or second brain makes this possible. And the ENS is composed of two layers of cells of more than 100 million cells that line the gi tract from the esophagus to the rectum (source)
When the messages reach the gut, the enteric nervous system takes them and interprets them and acts accordingly. How amazing is the body really!
The gut-brain connection starts developing in early life and continues to develop through early childhood.
It is influenced by what we eat, and how we feel which have a great effect on the chemical communications between our gut microbes and other cells including immune cells, hormones, serotonin-producing gut cells, and many other cells, metabolites and nerve cells in the gut.
This complex mix of cells then sends signals to the brain and affects our behavior including even our food choices, how we feel and what we term as our gut feelings/reactions.
In turn, the brain sends its own messages to the gut and the back and forth in turn affecting the messages the gut sends back to the brain.
One other crucial element is that maternal diet, gut health, and low-grade inflammation during pregnancy also affects fetus brain health and development.
And research has shown that a full-blown inflammation is likely to cause illnesses such as autism, and schizophrenia and that gut microbes produce metabolites that influence brain development.
A mother’s diet will also affect a growing baby from the womb to three years of age. Unfortunately, maternal stress during pregnancy and after can also interfere with brain development.
And this also can influence a child’s brain and gut microbiota and mess up the gut-brain connection leading to behavioral issues in children.
An interesting way of looking at your gut microbiome and harnessing its power according to an article in Conscious Lifestyle Magazine is to think of your gut bacteria as your very own farm animals that you farm and nurture so they can produce what you need to keep you healthy.
If you want your cows to give you good healthy milk supply, then feed the cattle the right fooder food-or pasture them right? So feed the gut bacteria healthy natural food as well. Simple.
Basically, having a diverse microbiota is best. This encourages resiliency combating health issues. The opposite is vulnerability to illnesses including the chronic types of diseases and mental health problems.
Leaky gut anxiety and depression connection
The gut-brain connection is strongly evident. Issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression can affect gut motility.
Just by going with the sensations you get when you have a big event coming up, like when you are so nervous about giving a speech and you feel nauseous for instance shows that our brains are in communication with our gut.
Since the 1960s it has been believed that these two conditions esp depression occurs due to an imbalance or not enough serotonin in the brain. But is that all there is to it?
New research is showing that anxiety and depression are much more complex and the root cause is many-sided. If we look at depression, causes may include:
- Generic predisposition
- Nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin B, folate, vitamin D, magnesium
- Other chronic illness such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, hormonal imbalances
- Environmental and socio-economic, situational experiences
- Digestive and gut health problems
- Traumatic experiences
For the purposes of this post, let us examine the role of gut health to brain health
This is two-fold.
There is the role of nutrients that can be deficient in the case of an inflamed and leaky gut.
Vitamins such as B12, which requires the gut microbes can become deficient. Iron deficiency is also common in relation to leaky gut.
Also, diets that lack crucial nutrients may affect the health of the gut leading to mental health problems as well well as gut and systemic inflammation.
But that is not all…
Remember that enteric nervous system?
The enteric nervous system has the capability to cause mood changes in those who suffer from Gi conditions such as IBS, constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain, bloating and more.
Originally scientists thought that anxiety and depression would contribute to the Gi problems but now it is clear that problems in the gut can cause mental health problems and mental health can also cause Gi problems.
It is clear now that the irritation in the gut such as in Leaky gut can cause the ENS to send a message to the brain that affects mood.
And so it turns out that therapies that help the brain also help to heal the gut and don’t be surprised if your gi dr prescribes antidepressants next time. These meds may act on the nerve cells in the gut and even therapies such as CBT can help calm IBS irritation researchers says.
Do gut bacteria influence brain health and mood?
Gut bacteria are important in the help they provide us indigestion. They help us break down food during digestion and also produce nutrients such as B vitamins, and vitamin K. In addition, the gut bacteria also produce other factors such as immune molecules to keep inflammation down.
It is quite a novel idea that the type of gut bacteria in one’s gut or the absence of some bacteria type can lead to mood disorders such as depression per this article.
This research shows that those who suffered from depression among the subjects tested were missing two key bacteria and that they also tended to have present bacteria that are associated with Crohn’s disease. Due to the Gi diseases, inflammation was a factor.
In this 2019 research study published in Science, researchers found that gut bacteria produce or break down at least 56 substances important to brain health and nervous system function.
In this research, the researcher also compiled a list of substances necessary for brain health, for example finding that the bacteria Coprococcus has something to do with the production of dopamine, a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter. Also, it was found that the same bacteria also produced butyrate an anti-inflammatory substance.
Moreover, researchers found that those who were depressed missed this gut bacteria and also tended to suffer from diseases like Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory condition. It follows then that without this bacteria there is increased inflammation and inflammation is implicated in depression.
Researchers were careful to point out that it is not quite clear whether the lack of these bacteria leads to depression or depression leads to the absence of these bacteria. But it is notable that people with depression do mostly have different eating habits and lifestyles and that can lead to a difference in gut bacteria.
Other studies found that there is a connection between the gut bacteria and anxiety and depression and a connection
between feelings and the human gut.
The research confirmed that it is possible to change gut bacteria through diet and this change also affected brain function.
So what can you do to ensure a healthy gut-brain connection?
Probiotics supplements can help. Eventually.
But keep in mind that a probiotic may not provide a quick fix as the problem is far more complex. But eating a variety of plant foods is the best to replenish gut bacteria. The idea is largely to have a diversity in the microbiome.
Eat for your gut microbiome
See this post on eating for gut health which will help your brain health
Eat natural foods
These are the main foods to eat for gut health and for a balanced healthy gut-brain connection.
- Vegetables( best cooked)
- Fermented foods
- Bone broth
- Good fats such as coconut, olive, oils or from fatty fish like salmon
- Meat from grass-fed animals
In conclusion, what do we know about the gut-brain connection?
Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression even others such as Alzheimer’s, and likely many of brain health issues are not simply mental but have roots in the gut, and behind it all is inflammation.
The main thing to keep in mind is that a lot is happening in your gut and the role of bacteria and the brain
So to really enhance brain health and a positive gut-brain connection follow these actions steps:
- Eat healthy natural food
- Avoid antibiotics if at all possible… don’t be seeking to treat every minute illness with antibiotics. Treat the big ones. If you have a cold and it is not pneumonia ear infection or bronchitis, don’t be seeking antibiotics.
- Avoid stress:
- You can practice yoga, sleep better and enough, exercise, talk and visit with friends, etc.
I know. Life is stressful. Do what you can to minimize stress. Here are some tips.
Tell me in comments do you have a leaky gut? Do you have mental health problems? What have you tried to heal your gut and mental health?