Did you know that your gut and your brain have a long, well established and critically important relationship going on?
Increasingly we are starting to hear about the strong correlation between gut health, your immune system and brain health.
brief biology tour
You have an entire nerve centre in your stomach where you receive intuitive messages. This nerve centre is called the enteric nervous system or second brain – hence the term gut feeling or gut instinct.
70% of your immune system is found in the wall of the colon.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body and it runs all the way from the brain stem to the colon. So what happens in your gut has a super fast double highway directly to your brain.
Your gut PH balance plays an essential role in your overall health. PH balance ranges from 1 to 14 (above 7 is alkaline and below 7 is acidic, with 7 being neutral). A healthy body is slightly alkaline at 7.4 ph. Interesting to note is that cancer cells cannot live in an alkaline PH environment but thrive in an acid PH environment.
Our body does not manufacture alkaline but produces acidity as a by product of normal metabolism. We get our alkaline from the food we eat, or through supplements, i.e. alkaline powder.
When Inflammation occurs, chemicals from the body’s white blood cells are released into the blood or affected tissues to protect the body from foreign substances. So inflammation, when used for what it was intended, is great.
Unfortunately conditions such as leaky gut (a condition that affects the digestive system) results in substances (such as bacteria, toxins and undigested food particles) “leaking” through the blood gut barrier (intestinal permeability). These substances enter your bloodstream, triggering widespread inflammation. This in turn stimulates an immune reaction and unfortunately when the body’s inflammation system is continuously triggered and running in overdrive there are a myriad issues that can result.
So what is the big deal?
A troubled gut sends signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain sends signals to your gut. As a result of this intimate connection, your troubled stomach or intestinal problems can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress or depression.
The gut and the brain are further connected through chemicals known as neurotransmitters which are produced in the brain and control feelings and emotions.
Systemic inflammation, in the form of inflammatory cytokines, move from the gut (caused by leaky gut) into the brain, crossing the blood brain barrier (resulting in leaky brain), inhibiting activity of the frontal cortex, which is strongly linked to depression. Many medical experts are starting to investigate whether depression could be an inflammatory issue.
As research increasingly considers the link between depression and autoimmune disease such as MS, Alzheimers, arthritis etc, and high levels of inflammation, we are starting to see depression and some of these diseases being treated by diet and microbiome health restoration.
Depression will pose the second biggest health risk in the next 10 years and today’s average levels of anxiety in children and young people is now at a point that would have been considered clinical in the 1950’s.
Alzheimers, MS and other autoimmune diseases are on the increase. In 2010 there was an estimated 454,000 new cases of Alzheimers disease and it is estimated that by 2030, that number will increase by 35% to 615,000 and by 110% to 959,000 in 2050.
The statistics certainly encourage an alternative look into the causes of these life threatening diseases.
Science is starting to link the poor quality diet the majority of our youth are addicted to, fast foods, energy drinks, highly processed carbohydrates and an overload of sugar to the drastically increasing levels of anxiety and depression in our youth, resulting in increased levels of autoimmune disease in our adult populations. We all know the role of stress in the 21st century human but we are now increasingly also linking the poor quality of our gut health to some of these conditions.
The magical microbiome
Your microbiome, the diverse population of microbes (bacteria) that live in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract play an important role in the health of your gut and therefore in your overall physical well being, from inflammatory disorders to obesity.
Current thinking in the field of neuropsychology and the study of mental health problems includes very strong speculation that bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychological and neurological problems may be associated with alternations in the microbiome. Researchers speculate that any disruption to the normal, healthy balance of bacteria in the microbiome can the cause the immune system to overreact and contribute to inflammation of the GI tract. This in turn leads to the development of disease not only occurring in your body but also in your brain.
There is so much more about this topic that one could write a thesis.
My post, however, is merely to draw your awareness to this critical link between gut health and overall health. My hope is that reading this blog will result in your own research (which I strongly encourage) into the importance of maintaining your gut health, since, many doctors and scientists strongly believe that the majority of our illness stems from our gut.
What you put into your mouth and, of course, even more importantly what you don’t put into your mouth plays a very important role in your physical and mental health.
some considerations, just in case
Not to leave anyone hanging, I will share a couple of easy to follow suggestions in terms of promoting your own gut health.
Of course each of you needs to consider your personal medical conditions, however, the points below would apply to the vast majority of people :
- Know your PH balance (you can buy litmus strips at most chemists to check this). Try to maintain a PH balance as close to 7.4 as possible (not an easy task) given the highly acidic food most of us eat, but certainly not an impossible task.
- Eat high levels of probiotic and prebiotic foods or take good quality supplements to make up for what you don’t get in your diet. What is the difference between the two is as follows:
- Probiotics – foods such as plain yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, fresh sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, apple cider vinegar and miso. Keep in mind, however, that probiotic effects of these foods are destroyed by cooking, processing or preserving at high temperatures. I personally find supplementing with a good probiotic much easier than relying purely on my foods to provide everything my gut requires.
- Prebiotics – these foods do not contain living organisms. They contribute to the health of your microbiome (they are the food for your bacteria) since these foods contain indigestible fibres that ferment in the GI tract, where they are consumed by probiotic bacteria and are converted into healthful substances. Prebiotic foods include artichokes, leeks, onions, garlic, chicory, cabbage, asparagus etc. Once again, supplementing can be easier at times.
I will include some future blogs dedicated to the topic of gut health as it is something so close to my heart, and therefore close to my gut and brain (hahaha). The more people become aware of this essential link between gut health and overall mental and physical health, the more we can all choose to live optimally functioning lives.
“Only when you know better can you do better” – Maya Angelou.