The Gut-Brain Axis
December 17, 2019
We have to have a healthy gut microbiome for us to have optimal overall health, including good mental health. What is the gut microbiome? It is a collection of viruses, fungi and bacteria that live within our gastrointestinal (GI) tract, as well as on our skin, and the latest science is revealing that our brain has its own microbiome as well. This article will focus on our GI microbiome.
Somewhere on the range of 10-100 trillion organisms reside in our intestinal tract. This means that the genetic material of the microbiome is approximately 150 times more than the human genome! Which means that we are not hosting our microbiome, our microbiome is hosting us! The organisms in our gut are essential for good health. An imbalance of these microbes is a root cause for disease to occur. The discovery of the microbiome is shifting the medical paradigm.
Disruptions to the microbiome through the use of antibiotics, disinfectant use, cleaning products, non prescription medications like antacids and Ibuprofen, C-section birth, the standard American diet, genetically modified foods, glyphosate (RoundUp), sleep disruption, stress, chronic infections—all interfere with a healthy gut-brain axis.
The brain is the most energy and nutrient dependent organ in our body, as well as the most vulnerable to stress and toxins. Damage to the gut means damage to the brain and vice versa.
The gut-brain axis is a link between the central nervous system (the brain) and the enteric nervous system (the gut). There are now proven links between the vitality of our gut and the health of our mind and body. As stated above, an imbalance of these microbes can be a direct link to disease. The term dysbiosis is used to describe this gut microbe imbalance. Sometimes we will have gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, gas, pain, reflux, diarrhea, constipation (labels such as IBS, GERD, Crohn’s) and so on; but often there won’t be any such symptoms. Rather, we’ll find conditions like allergies, autoimmune disorders, bone loss, anxiety/depression/neurodegenerative diseases/autism/ADHD, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, skin problems, thyroid disorders and the list goes on.
So, what does the microbiome do to prevent, or cause, disease? It is our first line of defense against pathogenic invaders, about 70% of our immune system resides in the gut. About 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut. Gut bacteria synthesize some nutrients such as K2, B12, folate and thiamine. The vagus nerve has communication pathways via the gut to the brain and back, that can be interfered with when not in optimal health. The microbiome maintains motility in the GI tract, meaning it keeps things moving, and it supports a strong gut barrier.
The gut barrier is only one cell thick, which allows nutrients to pass through the gut wall into our circulation to nourish our cells and organs. However, when compromised we develop what is called “leaky gut” or intestinal hyper-permeability. In this situation, substances that should never pass into our circulation are getting through and interfering with all of our homeostatic mechanisms, i.e. our health. A chronic low grade inflammation develops and wreaks havoc with our health. Often the process goes unrecognized until many years later, when we are faced with a serious illness. And sadly, most doctors don’t yet know about this process and how to assess it, then address it. Without an understanding of this underlying process, your symptoms may continue to be treated with approaches that don’t target the root cause.
So what can we do? There is so much we can do to support our gut-brain axis and our microbiome. Find a Functional Medicine practitioner, or a Naturopathic Physician who can assess your particular situation and obtain the correct lab tests to direct your therapeutic regimen. It starts with education. Your treatment will be intensive and will involve lifestyle changes, dietary shifts, supplements, herbal medicine, detoxification, stress management, and possibly more. It will take time, persistence, commitment, investment and you will need support. The rewards are invaluable. Nothing matters more than health.