The Gut / Brain Connection

Have you ever had a ”gut wrenching experience?” Have you felt butterflies in your stomach, or had a “gut feeling?” We all have experienced the influence that our thoughts and feelings can have on our stomach, but research is now showing that our guts can influence our mood, behaviour and thinking more that we had previously realized.

The stomach and intestines are so rich in nerves that the gut’s nervous system, the enteric nervous system, has been called the “second brain.” Surprisingly, there are about 100 million nerve cells in the gut, as many as there are in the head of a cat. Nervous stress can affect digestion from a number of angles including reducing blood flow to the digestive organs, altering secretion of digestive juices, changing gut motility, increasing the leakiness of the intestine and, most importantly, altering the intestinal bacterial lining called the microbiome.

The enteric nervous system also informs our state of mind. “A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut,” says Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor from U.C.L.A. It turns out that the main cranial (brain) nerve for controlling the digestion, the vagus nerve, uses 90% of its fibers to send information from the intestines to the brain. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve, a useful treatment for depression, may mimic these signals. The enteric nervous system, like the brain, uses neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels. So is there a link between impaired digestive function and mental or emotional disorders? The link is clear in autism and research suggests a link in depression, schizophrenia and more conditions of the mind.

Exciting research has emerged on the role of the bacteria in our guts and how it affects the brain. I recently attended the annual national conference of the Canadian Association of Gastroenterologists. Exciting research was presented on what is considered the most important work being done in the field of biology today. The Human Microbiome Project is an international collaboration to map the DNA of the trillions of bacteria that live in the human body. These bacteria are a critical determinant of digestion function, immune function, prevention of autoimmune disease and, as it turns out, mood. Changes in the intestinal microbiome can have profound consequences on our physical and mental health.

For instance, people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome have different wiring in their gut-brain connection. It has long been established that people with IBS have an amplified perception of pain from the intestines. Research now shows that it is their altered intestinal microbiome that is responsible for messing with the nerve signals from the gut.

In animal models, alterations in microorganisms of the intestines have been show to influence brain function including memory and anxiety. Studies on mice show that changes to gut bacteria can actually affect behaviour. If you take the gut bacteria from bold mice and put it into shy mice, the shy mice become bold and vice versa. Mice treated with good bacteria (probiotics) exhibit less anxiety and show changes in the hippocampus of the brain. They have more brain growth factors necessary for learning and higher thinking.

Researchers have found that people with major depression have alterations in their small intestine microbiome. Namely, they show signs of Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). My patients with SIBO often have been told they have Irritable Bowel Syndrome and suffer from bloating, constipation or diarrhea, fatigue, fibromyalgia and more. A simple breath test can help diagnose SIBO; with a long term complex treatment regime, relief of both physical and mental symptoms can be achieved.

Antibiotics significantly alter the delicate and complex intestinal microbiome. Not only does this disturbance have an impact on digestion and the immune system, but it has also been shown to affect behaviour. Mice that are given antibiotics are more daring, having lost their natural instinct to hide from predators. Studies have shown that post antibiotic mice have impaired learning. Also, changes in the critical areas of the brain, the amygdale and hippocampus, have been demonstrated with antibiotic use. Since 30% of human newborns are exposed to antibiotics before they even go home from the hospital, and with many more children are given antibiotics in childhood, the implications for brain development and learning are disturbing.

Stress can also alter the microbiome, leaving us more vulnerable to bowel issues, inflammatory conditions and mental effects of these changes. When mice are separated from their mothers at a young age, their microbiome changes and they are more likely to develop inflammatory bowel issues later in life.

There are other digestive factors that have a ripple effect on the brain. Food allergies can activate immune cells called mast cells. These mast cells can release inflammatory chemicals that can have an impact on the brain causing mood, energy, and learning issues. For some people with celiac disease, the autoimmune response to gluten in common bread and pasta products can cause calcifications of brain tissue that can be devastating.

If you are suffering from both digestive issues and mood issues, there may be more of a link that you had previously thought. Treating the digestive issues by correcting the underlying cause may open up doors to improved mood and mental clarity. Naturopathic physicians have a long history of working with patients to enhance the digestive system, through optimal diet, avoidance of food allergies, enhancement of the intestinal microbiome and much more. Don’t let your guts get you down. Take charge of your mental and physical health.

Dr. Deidre Macdonald is a naturopathic physician who has practiced medicine in downtown Courtenay for 16 years. For more information, contact her office at (250) 897-0235 or via this website.

Think Straight, Feel Great: The Gut Brain Connection

Have you ever had a ”gut wrenching experience?” Have you felt butterflies in your stomach, or had a “gut feeling?” We all have experienced the influence that our thoughts and feelings can have on our stomach, but research is now showing that our guts can influence our mood, behaviour and thinking more that we had previously realized.

The stomach and intestines are so rich in nerves that the gut’s nervous system, the enteric nervous system, has been called the “second brain.” Surprisingly, there are about 100 million nerve cells in the gut, as many as there are in the head of a cat. Nervous stress can affect digestion from a number of angles including reducing blood flow to the digestive organs, altering secretion of digestive juices, changing gut motility, increasing the leakiness of the intestine and, most importantly, altering the intestinal bacterial lining called the microbiome.

The enteric nervous system also informs our state of mind. “A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut,” says Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor from U.C.L.A. It turns out that the main cranial (brain) nerve for controlling the digestion, the vagus nerve, uses 90% of its fibers to send information from the intestines to the brain. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve, a useful treatment for depression, may mimic these signals. The enteric nervous system, like the brain, uses neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels. So is there a link between impaired digestive function and mental or emotional disorders? The link is clear in autism and research suggests a link in depression, schizophrenia and more conditions of the mind.

Exciting research has emerged on the role of the bacteria in our guts and how it affects the brain. I recently attended the annual national conference of the Canadian Association of Gastroenterologists. Exciting research was presented on what is considered the most important work being done in the field of biology today. The Human Microbiome Project is an international collaboration to map the DNA of the trillions of bacteria that live in the human body. These bacteria are a critical determinant of digestion function, immune function, prevention of autoimmune disease and, as it turns out, mood. Changes in the intestinal microbiome can have profound consequences on our physical and mental health.

For instance, people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome have different wiring in their gut-brain connection. It has long been established that people with IBS have an amplified perception of pain from the intestines. Research now shows that it is their altered intestinal microbiome that is responsible for messing with the nerve signals from the gut.

In animal models, alterations in microorganisms of the intestines have been show to influence brain function including memory and anxiety. Studies on mice show that changes to gut bacteria can actually affect behaviour. If you take the gut bacteria from bold mice and put it into shy mice, the shy mice become bold and vice versa. Mice treated with good bacteria (probiotics) exhibit less anxiety and show changes in the hippocampus of the brain. They have more brain growth factors necessary for learning and higher thinking.

Researchers have found that people with major depression have alterations in their small intestine microbiome. Namely, they show signs of Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). My patients with SIBO often have been told they have Irritable Bowel Syndrome and suffer from bloating, constipation or diarrhea, fatigue, fibromyalgia and more. A simple breath test can help diagnose SIBO; with a long term complex treatment regime, relief of both physical and mental symptoms can be achieved.

Antibiotics significantly alter the delicate and complex intestinal microbiome. Not only does this disturbance have an impact on digestion and the immune system, but it has also been shown to affect behaviour. Mice that are given antibiotics are more daring, having lost their natural instinct to hide from predators. Studies have shown that post antibiotic mice have impaired learning. Also, changes in the critical areas of the brain, the amygdale and hippocampus, have been demonstrated with antibiotic use. Since 30% of human newborns are exposed to antibiotics before they even go home from the hospital, and with many more children are given antibiotics in childhood, the implications for brain development and learning are disturbing.

Stress can also alter the microbiome, leaving us more vulnerable to bowel issues, inflammatory conditions and mental effects of these changes. When mice are separated from their mothers at a young age, their microbiome changes and they are more likely to develop inflammatory bowel issues later in life.

There are other digestive factors that have a ripple effect on the brain. Food allergies can activate immune cells called mast cells. These mast cells can release inflammatory chemicals that can have an impact on the brain causing mood, energy, and learning issues. For some people with celiac disease, the autoimmune response to gluten in common bread and pasta products can cause calcifications of brain tissue that can be devastating.
If you are suffering from both digestive issues and mood issues, there may be more of a link that you had previously thought. Treating the digestive issues by correcting the underlying cause may open up doors to improved mood and mental clarity. Naturopathic physicians have a long history of working with patients to enhance the digestive system, through optimal diet, avoidance of food allergies, enhancement of the intestinal microbiome and much more. Don’t let your guts get you down. Take charge of your mental and physical health.

Possible Symptoms of Food Allergies /Intolerances

Adverse reactions to foods or beverages can be as subtle as a runny nose or as dramatic as severe depression. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you may have a food allergy/intolerance.

  • rapid pulse after eating
  • gas and bloating
  • abdominal discomfort
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • heartburn
  • weight gain
  • skin rashes, eczema, hives
  • tired after eating
  • swelling of body features
  • headache
  • insomnia
  • poor memory
  • irritability, nervousness, depression
  • hyperactivity
  • sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion
  • upper respiratory congestion
  • frequent clearing of throat
  • canker sores
  • ringing in ears
  • ear infections
  • hay fever
  • excessive mucous
  • recurrent ‘colds’
  • hot flashes
  • chronic infections
  • aches and pains for no reason
  • binge eating
  • if you have severe cravings for any type of food, you may be addicted to the food contributing to your condition

Depression and Naturopathic Medicine

Depression can have a Natural Solution

Dr. Deidre Macdonald is a licensed Naturopathic Physician with a family practice in downtown Courtenay. To ask a question to be answered in her column, please send an e-mail to drdmac@uniserve.com. Please note that this column is for educational purposes only. Dr. Macdonald’s office number is 897-0235.

Dear Dr. Macdonald;
I tend to get quite down in the dumps during the winter months. I know spring is coming…just not soon enough. I am 40 years old with a 3 year old daughter. She needs her mom to be in better spirits. My doctor thought maybe I should take Paxil (an antidepressant medication). Any natural alternatives?
Beth in Comox.

Dear Beth;
There are many reasons people can get depressed, including lack of sun (known as SAD: seasonal affective disorder). My experience is that often depression is caused by a combination of factors. And yes, there are a number of alternatives to anti-depressant drugs that have far fewer side effects and withdrawal effects.

That said, if you are suicidal or have the urge to hurt yourself or someone else, you must get professional help immediately. If your depression is more severe or doesn’t respond to natural medicine, you should see your conventional or naturopathic doctor so he or she can assess whether you need counselling, a referral, or a different combination of therapies.

One of the tenets of Naturopathic medicine is “treat the cause”. Therefore, in treating a patient with depression, I first do a thorough evaluation of their physical and mental health. Sometimes, to get to the bottom of depression we have to treat an illness, manage pain, reverse anemia, balance hormones, overcome addictive behavior, build the adrenal glands, assist in sleep and more. Another tenet is “first do no harm.” In my practice I try to take the least invasive, most supportive route first, working down a continuum of treatments until optimal results are achieved. Following are some strategies I have had good results with.

1. Diet.

  • eliminate refined sugars and grains (to stabilize blood sugar)
  • eat a well rounded diet (high quality proteins and fats, whole grains, and lots of fruits and vegetables- all organic whenever possible)
  • avoid alcohol or other mood altering substances
  • find and eliminate food sensitivities (through Vega testing or blood tests with your ND) as they can play an enormous role in depression. For instance, gluten allergy is well documented to cause depression.

2. Exercise. The evidence is very clear. People who exercise on a regular basis not only have more stable moods, but have higher self-esteem and greater productivity.

3. Vitamins. Even if you are eating a healthy diet, a good high quality multi-vitamin can be very helpful. Make sure it has plenty of B-vitamins in it, or supplement them additionally.

4. Herbs.

  • St. John’s Wort. Many studies have shown that for mild to moderate depression St. John’s Wort is as effective as several of the common prescription antidepressants. There are some known interactions with other prescription drugs, so it is best to use St. John’s Wort under the supervision of your ND (naturopathic doctor).
  • Ginkgo is used successfully with some types of depression, especially in seniors.
  • Valarian is more frequently used for anxiety but can be helpful for some types of depression.

5. 5-HTP. (5-hydroxy-tryptophan) is a metabolite of tryptophan and a precursor to serotonin. Therefore, it gives the brain the raw materials for making serotonin, which helps depression, carbohydrate cravings and sleep. Some scientific studies have shown it’s effectiveness in relieving depression to be as effective as common prescription serotonin enhancing drugs (SSRI’s) but has far fewer side effects. I have used this with a great deal of success in my practice over the years. It can not be combined with anti-depressant drugs and I recommend being supervised by your naturopathic doctor while on this natural anti-depressant.

6. B vitamin injections. In addition to oral B vitamin supplementation, I sometimes administer an intravenous injection of B vitamins called a Meyer’s Cocktail. It is very useful for people who have experienced chronic stress, adrenal burnout, chronic fatigue, long-term illness, or are experiencing withdrawal difficulties from anti-depressant drugs. B vitamins are essential for the proper functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain, and they help with nourishing the adrenal glands and the nervous system.

7. Fish oil. Over the past ten years, there have been 12 intervention studies conducted using fish oil for depression. Most of the studies showed a positive effect on depression. Healthy brains have a high concentration of DHA, one of the oils in fish oil. Eating fish and supplementing with 4-6 capsules a day helps not only depression but has many side-benefits for the rest of the body.

8. Counselling. This may seem obvious, but often people don’t think of counselling as necessary for your garden-variety blues. The right counsellor or therapist can be hard to find, as it is important to work with someone you like and respect. Many naturopathic doctors do counselling, and there are plenty of qualified professionals in the Comox Valley. Ask friends, call around, and talk to different therapists. The benefits from good therapy combined with natural approaches is often just the trick.

Yours in Health,
Dr. Deidre Macdonald

For more information on naturopathic medicine and Dr. Macdonald, check out www.getwellhere.com or call the office at 897-0235.