“All disease begins in the gut.” -Hippocrates
With the variety of things that wreak havoc on our digestive systems these days, it may seem impossible to try to get back in balance and restore yourself to optimal health. But it’s not just about digestive issues alone, as gastrointestinal health can be the root cause for many other health issues including brain and mental health. However, with a bit of planning and time, it’s entirely possible to restore the full health of your gastrointestinal system, which can have major positive effects on your entire body, from mood, to memory, and more. Healing your gut allows the body to build a stronger immune system and produce the right kind of bacteria that tells your brain that it’s okay to feel good again.
The health of your gastrointestinal system is extremely important to your overall well-being. Largely responsible for the critical functions of the body’s digestive and immune systems, beneficial bacteria in your digestive system have the capability of affecting your body’s vitamin and mineral absorbency, hormone regulation, digestion, vitamin production, immune response, and ability to eliminate toxins, not to mention your overall mental health.
Scientifically known as intestinal hyperpermeability, leaky gut syndrome is not only all too real for too many individuals, and new research shows just how strong the connection between gut health and brain health can be within the body.
Digestion, mood, health, and even the way people think is being linked to their “second brain,” i.e. their gut, more and more every day. The Enteric Nervous System, or ENS, is what scientists are calling the 100 million or so nerve cells that line the entirety of people’s gastrointestinal tracts. The main role of the ENS is to control digestion, but in doing so, it communicates back and forth with the brain as to the overall health of the body’s gut, and in turn, its immune system.
The connection between gut health and mood has been known for some time, as individuals suffering from bowel-disorders such as Celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or leaky gut are more likely than others to also suffer from autoimmune diseases and mental issues such as depression and anxiety. Symptoms related to poor gut health can be as obvious as abdominal pain, bloating after meals, reflux, or flatulence, but also less obvious like headaches, fatigue, joint pain, and immune system weakness.
So what’s the science behind this change in mood?
Generally speaking, the health of your gastrointestinal (GI) system is determined by the levels and types of bacteria in your digestive tract. Ideally there is a balance of bacteria, however, an imbalance between beneficial and harmful bacteria results in gut dysbiosis.
Most often, dysbiosis is the result of too many bad “bugs,” including bacteria, yeast, and sometimes parasites, and not enough good ones. This imbalance causes damage to the mucosal layer of your GI tract; the normally smooth intact mucosal layer becomes permeable, allowing food proteins to enter into the blood stream. This consequently activates your immune system, causing inflammation, food sensitivities, and a myriad of symptoms both in the GI system and throughout the whole body.
Research has shown that when the gut is irritated or inflamed, which usually happens when the body is trying to digest foods that are overly processed or that it has sensitivity to, the ENS signals the body’s Central Nervous System (CNS), which can then trigger mood changes. And, new studies suggest that digestive function may also affect certain cognitive functions, such as thinking skills and memory.
For mental health, a 2015 Cell Journal study found that, although serotonin is well known as a brain neurotransmitter, approximately 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is made in the digestive tract. A lack of this “peripheral” serotonin, which is cultivated by certain bacteria in the gut and affects mental health, has been linked to diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, leaky guy, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis.
On the other hand, gut health can also impact mood and mental health in positive ways.
The type of food that a body processes can have a huge positive effect on the functions of the brain. And when the gut is healthy, the brain is happier. Certain microbes found in the gut can work to help heal and protect the brain in the long-term.
However, with the diet of the average American, filled with processed, sugary and fatty foods, the gut becomes damaged over time and therefore less functional. Diets that are filled with simple carbohydrates and gluten are damaging to the brain, as they allow bad bacteria in the gut to grow exponentially. This type of gut-damaging diet has been linked to mental health issues ranging from headaches and ADHD to depression and dementia.
So what can you do about it?
Through testing, nutritional changes, and supplements, it’s possible to reverse and repair the damage that’s been done to your gut over years of unhealthy diets or imbalances.
First, figure out what exactly is going on within your body with advanced diagnostic testing to determine what food sensitivities you may have that could be affecting your body’s ability to absorb nutrients or digest. And research what supplements you could benefit from that will help your gut stay healthy for the long term.
Then, make an actionable plan for yourself to get your body back to optimal gut health. Consider the “4 R’s” of gastrointestinal and digestive health – Remove; Repair; Restore; and Replace. A good program will work to first remove the problem foods and toxins from your system that could be causing issues, then start to repair and heal the gut by reintroducing a clean diet and key nutrients. With the addition of probiotics, you can then begin to restore the ideal balance of gut bacteria and finally you will replace your digestive enzymes to maintain your new optimal levels and promote healthy digestion.
With the undeniable link between gut health and mental health, the age old adage “you are what you eat” becomes more accurate every day.
What does your gut say about you?
Dr. Douglas Lord, M.D.
Medical Director, Nava Health and Vitality Center (NavaCenter.com)