At one time, mental illness was considered illegal and people diagnosed were sent to prison. With the progression of medical understanding, they were institutionalized in insane asylums instead and exposed to some horrifying (often experimental) treatments. As science evolved and medicine specialized, we’ve learned a lot about our bodies, brains, individual organs and various bodily systems but historically, there hasn’t been a great collaboration between specialties. To fully understand health, we need to factor the incredible connection between all organs, systems, the gut and the brain etc. Today I explore the connection between the brain and gut.
Many physical issues in the body are connected to mental wellness: Depression can affect the heart, issues with the adrenal glands can cause panic and severe anxiety, blood infections can cause feelings of madness… When it comes to mental health however, the connection between the brain and body is often missed – especially if the only solutions offered are counseling or medication.
Different parts of the body can drastically affect each other, as is apparent in the connection between the brain and the gut. The brain and the gastro-intestinal system are physically connected by the wandering Vagus Nerve, whose job is to transport information (chemicals) back and forth. The enteric nervous system in the gut (often referred to as the second brain) contains 100-500 million neurons which is why the gut and brain have such an influence on each other. Because of this two-way communication, our gut health affects our brain health, and our brain affects our gut – more than we can possibly imagine. An example of this can be experienced during times of intense stress, which can upset the stomach and cause gut issues and IBS symptoms. Stress also changes the balance of the microbiome in the gut preventing the proper absorption of nutrients, among other issues.
An individual’s gut biome contains up to 1,000 species of bacteria (both healthy and unhealthy). In a healthy body, the good bacteria generally keep the bad bacteria in check, but if there are other influencing factors like bad diets, life stressors, or other mental or physical problems causing changes in gut bacteria, things can get out of balance quickly – causing issues for both the gut and mental well-being. Conditions such as IBS and IBD are often paired with mood issues.
Several vital brain neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, glutamate and Gaba are all dependent on normal and healthy gut bacteria, many mood disorders and mental health issues are caused (or exacerbated) by an imbalance of these chemicals. Serotonin is a important brain chemical that helps regulate mood and emotions. In depressed and anxious people, serotonin levels are depleted, which is why many people rely on SSRI medications (anti-depressants). What is not commonly known is that 95 per cent of the body's serotonin supply is produced in the gastro-intestinal system. Release of the fight or flight response hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) and stress chemical (cortisol) is also regulated by the Gut. When gut bacteria are restored to a healthy balance, normal levels of these mind-altering chemicals are often restored.
Our brain needs proper balance of gut bacteria to make the chemicals it needs to be healthy and our guts need our brain to be stable and healthy to maintain the proper balance of gut bacteria. If this relationship is stressed, both the gut and the brain are negatively affected. Mental and Digestive disorders are among the most prevalent ailments in humanity today and, as it has been proven that the gut and brain health are dependent on each other, we should be treating both when either is in trouble.
Eliminating foods that harm the gut (sugars, glutens, alcohol, oxidants, additives and preservatives (to name a few), eating healthy, and including pre-biotics and probiotics in our diet will benefit the brain as well as the whole digestive system. According to Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Nutritional Psychiatrist and author of “This is Your Brain on Food”, food is some of the best mental health medicine available. Prevention through nutrition is optimal, but if gut and mental health balance is out of whack there are many foods to include or avoid to help restore balance.
Claire Nielsen is a health coach, author, public speaker and founder of www.elixirforlife.ca. The information provided in the above article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health and medical advice. Please consult a doctor or healthcare provider if you're seeking medical advice, diagnoses and/or treatment.