We have known for decades that an upset brain sends messages to our "guts", but now we know that our guts send messages to our brain. We have a complete, separate (enteric) nervous system in our digestive tracts that can communicate and remember independently from, and can influence, the brain. Some scientist are starting to advocate for the view that the gut and the brain are one system, not two.
French Drs. Fetissov and Dechelotte suggest that eating disorders, major depression, and even narcolepsy might not originate in the brain but from a dysfunction of the gut, specifically the immune system.
Research has shown that 95 percent of serotonin, a key "feel good" chemical, is made and/or found in the gut, as are a large percentage of dopamine and GABA, two other important chemicals involved in mood and sleep regulation. In fact, docs are improving treatment of chronic and often debilitating gastrointestinal (GI) problems such as constipation, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome with medications that allow more serotonin to circulate in the body- the exact same medications that psychiatrists prescribe for depression and anxiety.
So what goes wrong for the many Americans who suffer from depression, anxiety, insomnia, eating disorders, GI problems, or both? Their immune systems- about 80 percent of which are found in the GI tracts- are compromised by bad bacteria due to some combination of low-fiber, highly processed, chemically-spiked food; stress; sleep deprivation; and over use of antibiotics. These factors lower the amount of good bacteria in the gut and reduce levels of serotonin, dopamine or GABA. A lack of good bacteria in the gut also adversely affects nutritional health, making it more difficult for our bodies to synthesize B vitamins, vitamin K and to absorb calcium, magnesium and iron. The resulting deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and neurotransmitters create susceptibility to many diseases, including depression and anxiety, eating disorders, and a plethora of GI tract problems and autoimmune diseases.
Here's the take-away: Supporting the health of the digestive tract can reap great emotional, cognitive and physical rewards.
Supporting the health of body and brain
1. Make simple, inexpensive dietary changes
- Reduce consumption of processed, chemically preserved or colored foods, and genetically modified foods
- Increase consumption of Prebiotic Foods: artichokes, bananas, barley, beets, chicory, flax, garlic, leeks, oats, onions, soybeans, wheat
- Increase natural sources of Omega-3 fatty acids: wild caught salmon, halibut, scallops, tuna, flax seed* (ground 20 minutes or less before you consume it), walnuts, pasture raised meats and dairy products, black beans, kidney beans, winter squashes, olive oil
- Increase sources of soluble and insoluble fiber: dried figs, garbanzo beans, large Lima beans, red kidney beans, corn grits
- Increase foods high in insoluble fiber: wheat bran, dried coconut, pistachios, almonds, lentils
- Add fermented foods: add small amounts of plain yogurt, pickles, sauerkraut, miso soup, kimchi, kefir, buttermilk, creme fraiche to several meals a day. These foods are natural probiotics that help maintain a healthy bacterial balance in the GI tract/immune system
- Get adequate vitamin D, especially in Winter. Most Americans in the northern U.S. require supplementation if not outside for at least 15 minutes a day in Winter.
3. Develop good sleep habits. Turn off screens 30-60 minutes before lights out, and aim for a minimum of 7 hours, preferably 8 or more.
4. Decrease stress: Find five minutes a day to deep breathe, stretch, journal, use aromatherapy, or try guided meditation; and just say "no" to optional commitments that don't excite you.
The science of the gut-brain connection may intrigue or bore you, yet there is no denying that it warrants attention. A healthy digestive tract lays a strong foundation for physical and emotional vitality. With a few simple tweaks, you can improve yours.
*Although freshly ground flax seed it a nutritional powerhouse, it can interfere with the absorption of medication. Ideally, leave a 3-4 hour window before or after taking medication before consuming.
For more information on strengthening your brain and body through food, check out http://www.whfoods.com/ , a non-profit foundation with no commercial interests.
For more information on reducing stress, check some of my other blog posts.