“I’ve got a gut feeling about this.”
We are increasingly impressed that one of the best strategies to help patients improve their brain function is to help them heal their gut. This approach can work on a wide variety of brain conditions including early cognitive decline, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety, and depression. There are multiple connections between the gut and the brain that facilitate healthy gut-brain connection.
The Enteric Nervous System
Hidden in the walls of your digestive system are two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining the gastrointestinal tract. This enteric nervous system is intimately linked with the central nervous system with signals that go in both directions. Researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system that can trigger emotional and mood changes. In addition, most of the neurotransmitters (e.g., GABA, dopamine, and 5-HTP) that affect brain function are produced in the gut and are affected by the quality of the diet you eat.
The typical adult has over three pounds of bacteria in the gut with over two million bacterial genes. As the Human Microbiome Project continues to do its groundbreaking research, there has become a significant shift in medicine towards appreciating the importance of taking care of gut bacteria. It’s not as simple as good bacteria vs. bad bacteria. Rather it is about having a healthy bacterial ecosystem that can help to promote healing. Multiple scientific studies are showing that improvements in gut microbiome can reduce inflammation and decrease feelings of anxiety and depression.
Many brain conditions and symptoms are driven by neuroinflammation. We can see inflammation occur in the body after a traumatic accident (i.e., the swelling and redness), but inflammation in the brain is often hidden and hard to stop. Many of the sources of inflammation that affects the brain start in the gut. For example, research on gluten shows that it can loosen tight junctions in the gut, allowing antigens to cross into the blood and stimulate the immune system. While we recognize this condition as celiac disease in a minority of people, research has shown that gluten can have this effect on healthy adults, just to a lesser extent. Stimulation of the immune system and inflammation can also result in damage to the blood-brain barrier, making the brain much more susceptible to ongoing inflammation and exposure to toxins such as heavy metals. Stopping this inflammation in the brain is a critical part of our therapies. To do this effectively requires starting in the gut.
HOW TO BEGIN TO HEAL
Here are four practical ways to improve your gut-brain connection and build a better brain.
- Eat healthy fats: We recommend a diet that eliminates refined carbs and grains and increases omega-3s and monosaturated fats to help the body relearn how to use fats for fuel, as fats are the brain’s preferred fuel source. In addition, we find that the use of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT oil) can often help to clear brain fog.
- Eat probiotic-rich foods: The best long way to induce healthy bacteria in the gut is to eat a diet high in fiber and vegetables as well as foods with high amount of fermentation such as sauerkraut, kimchee, kefir, and yogurt. Sometimes additional supplemental probiotics are necessary, especially if there is trauma to the gut bacteria, such as when patients are on antibiotics.
- Avoid foods that can promote inflammation: Refined flours, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, vegetable oils, and artificial sweeteners collectively constitute more than 60% of the Standard American Diet and all promote gut and body inflammation.
- Strategic supplementation: Natural anti-inflammatories, such as Omega 3s, curcumin, and resveratrol, can help to reduce overall inflammation in both the gut and the brain. Dosing can vary quite significantly for individuals.
By Craig Tanio, MD