What if I told you that the phrase “gut feeling” was less of a metaphor and more of a literal experience? What if I told you that what you eat, how well you absorb and synthesize it, and the effect it has on your gut lining could actually alter your moods and behaviors? Would you think twice before you ate that chili cheese dog that gives you heartburn every single time you eat it? Or that milkshake that leaves you bloated and farting for 3 days?
Last week we talked about our gut as “gate keeper,” and how chronic inflammation begets chronic disease. This week, we’re covering gut health and mood. More specifically, how a healthy gut creates a healthy mood. (When I say mood, I mean a mood state, not necessarily a fleeting emotion. Negative mood states present as mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Positive mood states present as relaxation, resilience, happiness, and balance.) There’s a pretty remarkable feedback loop between the gut and the brain — the gut-brain axis — and it starts with the enteric nervous system.
Your Other Brain
Have you ever heard the term “gut brain?” More generally, did you know that our nervous system is comprised of multiple systems that reach far beyond the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord)? Indeed, the nervous system is split into two major components: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system then splits into the autonomic and somatic systems, and part of the autonomic system is what we’ll be talking about today: the enteric nervous system.
Embedded in the lining of our gut, the enteric nervous system plays a crucial role in our health and wellbeing, including our emotional health. It has an estimated 100 million neurons — more neurons than our spinal cord — along with its own neurotransmitters and proteins that have the ability to communicate, learn and even remember. It’s entirely autonomous from the central nervous system, governing about 90% of the messages that operate the gut, but the two systems communicate to ensure that our bodies function properly. Because of this unique independence from the brain in our skulls, the enteric nervous system in our bowels is often called our “second brain.”
Now that I’ve given you an Anatomy and Physiology speed round, what does it all mean?
It means your gut does a lot more than extract nutrients from your food and poop out the waste. It has a direct line to the brain, and it’s constantly communicating with it. If your gut is inflamed and leaky, chances are your brain is also inflamed and leaky. You’ve probably heard the term blood-brain barrier; it’s the shield that prevents substances in the blood from flowing freely into the brain, including medications, allergens, antigens, and other inflammatory agents such as excess cortisol or insulin. In short, it’s the brain’s “gate keeper.” Does that sound familiar? We have a blood-gut barrier too, and last week we talked about what happens when that barrier is compromised. Well guess what else is compromised when our gut wall is compromised: our brain wall.
inflamed gut = overactive immune system = inflamed brain = depression
leaky gut = leaky brain
How do I know if I have Leaky Brain??
I mentioned very briefly at the end of last week’s post that mood disorders are a sure-fire sign of a leaky gut/brain. In fact I said, “Find me a person with anxiety and no digestive problems, and I’ll find you a fire-breathing dragon with tiny purple wings at your local pet store.” (That might be the first time in history that I quoted myself.) Here’s a short list of indicators that you could have a leaky gut/brain:
- foggy headed-ness
- poor concentration
- poor short-term memory
- irritability (short fuse)
- hyperactivity (possibly ADHD)
In my first eBook, I shared with you that when I eliminated gluten from my diet, I noticed that I felt more clear-headed and less drowsy and foggy. I noticed not only that redness in my acne-prone skin was reduced, but also that my skin was less sensitive in general. I noticed that I had been waking up every morning with a stuffy nose thinking that was normal.
No, it’s not normal. I had a gluten sensitivity, and it was causing a leaky gut, an overactive immune response, and a leaky brain. When I eliminated gluten and healed my gut with bone broth, all of those symptoms I just mentioned dissipated.
Eating foods that inflame your gut will inflame your brain. A chronic assault on the brain by inflammatory cytokines can eventually cause neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. If you know that you’re allergic to certain foods, and you continue to eat them, you are guaranteeing a disturbance in your brain, whether it’s as mild as poor performance or as serious as a clinical mood disorder or Parkinson’s.
The Pharmacy in Your Gut
There are equal amounts of dopamine in the brain and in the gut. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that signals reward, motivation, love, and lust, but it’s also responsible for fear, apathy, psychosis, addiction, and ADHD. It’s a powerful chemical that needs to be maintained at proper levels in the body in order to keep that second list of characteristics at bay.
Dopamine also plays a role in our level of satiety and sense of reward when we eat, but we’ll talk about that when we cover weight gain in another part of this series.
95% of the serotonin running through our bodies at any given moment is found and made in the gut, and from there, the brain takes over and converts some of that serotonin into melatonin — the hormone that helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. The food we eat supplies our bodies with the fuel (in the form of tryptophan) to create serotonin. When we eat tryptophan-rich food, the small intestine converts it into 5-HTP, which is then converted to serotonin. Problems arise for our mood if one of those two steps is faulty due to … say it with me! … inflammation. If the small intestine is inflamed and the gut is leaky, we cannot properly convert tryptophan into 5-HTP, which means we don’t make enough serotonin.
Not only is serotonin important for our moods, it’s also important for proper gut motility. If you’ve ever taken an SSRI for anxiety or depression, then you might have experienced some of the digestive disturbances that come along with it.
This one is actually made in the brain, but its synthesis is entirely dependent on serotonin, most of which is found in the gut. If your brain can’t make melatonin, you won’t get good quality sleep. Poor sleep means that our bodies aren’t able to adequately clear inflammation and damaged tissue as we move through the stages of sleep, which means we wake up in the morning just as inflamed as when we went to bed. And the cycle continues.
Low levels of melatonin are also associated with increased risk of cancer — another chronic disease rooted in inflammation.
How to Make Changes Today
Last week we talked about the role of bacteria in keeping the gut lining intact, and this week we covered mood disorders and neurological issues that could result from leaky gut and leaky brain. Addressing gut health will eventually become part of a medical treatment plan for patients with mood disorders, but in the meantime, here are some things you can do:
Lock the gate!
Eliminating processed (inflammatory) foods, drinking bone broth, and feeding the good bacteria is a good place to start. Adding more live cultured foods to your diet, like sauerkraut, kefir, kim chee or the wild pickle recipe I shared on Friday, will help keep those good bugs happy and ensure they stick around and reproduce. Not only are healthy gut bacteria crucial in maintaining the gut lining, they are also crucial in making B-Complex. Deficiencies in B vitamins have been linked to depression, low energy, and decreased cognition.
Get to bed.
Creating a consistent sleep schedule that follows our circadian rhythm (even on weekends!) will help us get back on track. Doing this not only affects our mood but also the type of bacteria living in the gut, which help perpetuate the good work we’re doing to keep our gut linings sealed.
Studies show that using a morning light box treatment (mimicking the sunrise) is as effective as antidepressants on alleviating depression. Talk to your doctor before starting a light box treatment, as there are some potential side effects that need to be discussed professionally.
No, I don’t mean you should spend more time watching your family pass out on the couch in a food coma; it’s all about that turkey and stuffing (or sweet potatoes, as it were)!Eating foods rich in tryptophan is another way to ensure that you have adequate supplies to make serotonin. But the trick is to make sure you follow it up with a small portion of carbohydrates, which help deliver the goods to the right place for conversion. Of course, at Thanksgiving, we don’t eat anything in moderation, so do with that what you will…
Here’s a quick list of foods rich in tryptophan:
- Egg whites (greatest source)
- Soy nuts
- Cottage cheese
- Chicken livers
- Turkey (the most famous source due to our relaxed state after Thanksgiving dinner)
Hit the Pavement
Research is demonstrating a direct connection between exercise and the growth of good bacteria in the gut. By now, I don’t need to repeat why good bacteria help prevent leaky gut/brain and inflammation.
The endorphins released in exercise also act as a pain reliever and can provide a sense of euphoria for the exerciser — you’ve heard the term “runner’s high.” Not to mention, it just feels good to move, which can increase our self-esteem.
Regular exercise has been proven to:
- Reduce stress
- Ward off anxiety and feelings of depression
- Boost self-esteem
- Improve sleep (from WebMD)
On Friday I’ll be sharing a delicious, grain-free breakfast recipe rich in tryptophan. In the meantime, have a look at my 2-part series on sleep to find out how you can get your sleep on track to help keep your gut health in order and heal a leaky brain.
In case you missed the first installment of Why Gut Health Matters, check it out here.
Sources for this segment of this series include a 6-credit continuing education seminar presented by Merrily Kuhn, RN, CCRN (r), PhD, ND, PhD and the Institute of Brain Potential (bibliography and references can be viewed here), and information from the following articles, journals, and experts:
Chris Kresser: http://chriskresser.com/
Dr. Sara Gottfried: http://www.saragottfriedmd.com/