Mood, Cognition, Energy, and Anxiety Levels
Can you recall having had a gut-wrenching experience? Do you get nausea when you're stressed out? Do you experience “butterflies” before a big event? Do you ever have a gut feeling about something?
Underlying all these physical and emotional sensations is an often-overlooked network of neurons and nerves that line the tubes and organs that make up your digestive system, or ‘guts’. This network is so significant it’s often referred to as the ”second brain"!
You may not know it, but there are brilliant, super-fast cells known as neurons that reside in both the brain in your belly and the one in your head. This mass of neural tissues found in your digestive system works independently of your brain and does much more than handle digestion. More than 100 million neurons are embedded in the walls of your alimentary canal, which measures an impressive nine meters from the esophagus to anus. Here we find more than 30 neurotransmitters, and surprisingly, most of them are the same ones found in the brain. In fact, 90 percent of the body’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for mood, sleep patterns and cravings, is produced from cells in your digestive tract. This helps to explain why we tend to crave sweet foods or carbohydrates when we are down. And dopamine, the neurotransmitter that controls motivation, arousal, cognition, and reward, is evenly divided between the brain and the intestines.
These neurotransmitters in your gut communicate directly with brain cells. In fact, your gut sends more information to your brain then your brain sends to your gut. Amazingly, the gut sends signals to the brain that directly affect emotions, stress, memory, and learning. And it all starts with the flora in your gut.
Your Intestinal Flora
There are more bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract than there are cells in the body. The bacteria in your gut weigh about four pounds, and is composed of an estimated 400-1,000 different species, although about 40 to 50 predominate. These bacteria maintain a harmonious balance in a healthy digestive tract by keeping one another in check. Some of your flora is good and helpful; some of it is bad and generates disease.
The Good Guys
The good bacteria break down food, synthesize B vitamins, help absorb nutrients, and coat and protect the intestinal lining. They also aid in the synthesis of neurotransmitters and hormones. Research has shown that building good intestinal flora through the use of probiotic supplements is associated with improvements in depression, anxiety and even autism.
The Bad Guys
In a disturbed digestive system one or more colonies of flora can become over-dominant. Such microorganisms include E.coli, yeasts like Candida, fungus and parasites. A number of factors lead to overgrowth of the less desirable bacteria, including environmental toxins, antibiotics, stress and processed foods.
When these ‘bad guy’ bacteria take over, watch out, for toxins secreted by them overburden the liver and create a polluted environment. This build-up of toxins then leads to altered brain function and neural inflammation of the hypothalamus, resulting in common ailments such as brain fog and depression.
Bacterial Balance in the Gut is Essential for the Brain
In order to restore bacterial balance in the gut you can supplement your diet with good bacteria. Two healthy bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, have been shown to directly produce GABA, a neurotransmitter that is often deficient in those who are anxious. Additionally, ensuring there is sufficient healthy flora also enhances brain activity in the insular cortex, an area of the brain that controls perception, self-awareness, motor control, cognitive functioning and interpersonal experience.
Stress, Aging and Stomach Acid
Stress and aging decrease our ability to secrete hydrochloric acid and pancreatic enzymes. This directly affects our digestive capacity and therefore affects brain function. If you find particles of food in your stool, or experience abdominal discomfort, bloating and gas you may have a hydrochloric acid or digestive deficiency. Furthermore, stress, inflammation, heavy metals, genetically modified foods, antibiotics, pain medications and even chronic alcohol consumption damage the intestinal lining, leaving little holes for food to enter the blood and activate the immune system. This phenomenon, known as leaky gut or intestinal permeability, contributes to food sensitivities, flora imbalance and systemic inflammation. The result: altered brain functioning and symptoms like low mood, brain fog, joint pain and fatigue.
Food allergies are a common cause of digestive problems and a simple blood test can reveal whether delayed IgG food sensitivities are damaging your health. These delayed food reactions are due to immune system over-activation and differ from both immediate IgE reactions and food intolerances, such as an inability to digest dairy.
How to Optimize Your Two Brains
To improve brain function you may want to consult with a naturopathic physician who can help you reduce inflammation, optimize your intestinal health and improve your cognition.
In treating the gut, I often recommend people eat a gluten-free diet and optimize digestion by supplementing with enzymes and hydrochloric acid to break down food. I frequently recommend fish oil to reduce intestinal inflammation and usually insist on a good probiotic to increase your gut’s population of helpful bacteria. Finally, once your intestinal integrity has been restored, we balance hormone and cortisol health and often test neurotransmitter levels to optimize serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine and GABA production, thereby bringing both brains back into harmony.
Don’t let poor digestion go untreated. Optimal intestinal health is complex and unfortunately it requires more than just taking an antacid tablet. Your brain function depends on having appropriate bacterial balance and effective neurotransmitter signaling from your gut to your brain. I've heard many patients say that they hadn't had problems with their mood or brain function until they started experiencing problems with their guts. Don't take my word for it: see for yourself. Once you begin to heal the little brain in your tummy, you'll be excited to see just how great its effect on the brain upstairs truly is.
Note: You can learn more about the fabulous Dr. Mel on our About page.