Why the gut matters to the brain
Did you know that the gut and the brain are connected? Or that gastrointestinal issues like leaky gut and IBS could be an indication of poor mental health? Ever wondered if inflammation in your body could be sign of a weakened gut and a cause for depression and anxiety? We often look at our systems in isolation with other parts of our body but research increasingly shows that our brain and gut are interlinked and effect the way they each function.
The digestive system has it’s own nervous system called the enteric nervous system or the ‘second brain’ (Kharrazian, 2013). The brain communicates with the enteric nervous system through a large, meandering nerve called the vagus nerve. This nerve originates in the brain and wanders all over the body, and touches all organs including the digestive system. It sends signals for various gastrointestinal functions and when not functioning optimally can lead to motility issues, lack of digestive enzymes, low Hcl and potentially a leaky gut.
On the other end, the gut releases many chemical messengers like hormones, enzymes that effect our brain health. Chemicals such as neurotensin and cholecystokinin originate in the gut and play a role in psychiatric and neurological health (Kharrazian, 2013). Similarly, GABA (an important chemical manufactured by the gut bacteria), is an amino acid that serves as a neurotransmitter and stabilizes the brain so we can handle stress and anxiety better (Perlmutter, 2015). Another vitaI neurotransmitter is Glutamate which is responsible for a healthy brain. In short, research shows that depression and anxiety are linked to a lack of neurotransmitters like GABA and Glutamate, that originate in the gut.
Control Inflammation: The balance and diversity of gut bacteria regulates how much inflammation occurs in the body and the brain. And higher the levels of inflammation, higher the likelihood of developing depression (Perlmutter, 2015). An anti-inflammatory diet, that also heals any intestinal permeability (if present) is a great way to manage depression through diet.
Remove the culprits: Eliminate any irritants in your current diet that cause noticeable mood swings and cause any sings of depression after eating them. Common irritants are dairy, soy, gluten and sugar. Overall, avoid processed foods since they are loaded with sugars and preservatives.
Feed the Bugs: Increase the intake of good bacteria necessary for intestinal health. Increase your intake of fermented foods (kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut etc.) as they contain beneficial bacteria that is necessary to restore balance to you gut. Of particular importance is lactobacillus acidophilus which is already present in the gut. Also increase your intake of pre-biotics which feed the good gut bacteria (Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, garlic).
Eat the rainbow: Load your diet with high fiber foods, colorful fruits and veggies, bone broth, and fermented foods. It’s been seen that nutrients that are produced by the gut, such as B12, are known to lower levels of clinical depression as well as control our body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower inflammation.
Bauman, E., Friedlander, J. Therapeutic Nutrition. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College, 2016.
Murray, Michael, N.D. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Atria Books, 2005.
FBowden, J., Sinatra, S. The Great Cholesterol Myth. MA: Fair Winds Press, 2015
**As with taking any supplements, always consult your health care provider before incorporating any of these botanicals into your cholesterol management plan.