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

A 62 year old woman named Carol came to my clinic this winter concerned that she was depressed.  She had tried anti-depressants in the past and didn’t find them satisfactory.  She asked for my help in creating a program to help her regain her joie de vivre.  I let her know that we would do a proper depression assessment, and if I felt she was mildly to moderately depressed, then a naturopathic medical approach would be an appropriate and often very successful strategy for treating her depression.  My experience is that often depression is caused by a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual 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 someone has severe depression, or has the urge to hurt themselves or someone else, they must get psychiatric help immediately.)

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 such a thyroid, overcome addictive behavior, support the adrenal glands, correct digestive disorders, find nutritional deficiencies, assist in sleep and more. The brain is profoundly affected by the rest of the body, and for it to function properly, the rest of the body needs to be balanced and healthy. That said, there are some specific ways to support good brain health and create a better mood.  Getting coaching on how to implement these principles into your life can be very helpful.  When working with my patients, we start with small goals, monitor progress, problem-solve obstacles, and celebrate successes as we move towards a healthier mind and body.

Eat to fuel your brain by eating high quality proteins, fats, whole grains, and lots of vegetables and some fruits. Avoid refined sugar and flour products but enjoy some whole grains like brown rice and quinoa. Include fish or fish oil supplements as their omega 3 fats are important for the brain. Avoid stimulants, alcohol and drugs. Work with a naturopathic physician to identify and eliminate any food allergies or intolerances that may be dragging you down. Optimize your intestinal gut bugs (microbiome) with probiotics and fermented foods. Make sure you don’t have undiagnosed or untreated Celiac disease (autoimmune gluten reaction) as this one factor can have a serious impact on mood and brain function.

 Get out and exercise: The evidence is very clear. Exercise is a very potent anti-depressant. Head to head, it works as well as anti-depressant medication for many people.  Getting outdoors provides needed light for our brains to balance its chemistry. Working out with others has the added benefit of providing social contact, a key element of good mental health. Getting outside in nature has added benefits to the nervous system, hormones and mood.

Vitamins: Even if you are eating a healthy diet, extra magnesium and a B complex supplement can give the brain the building blocks it needs to make neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that ward off depression.  Supplement with Vitamin D, as deficiency is rampant in the Canada, and has been linked to depression.

Balance brain chemistry naturally: St. John’s Wort has been extensively studied and has been shown to be as effective as several of the common prescription antidepressants for most types of depression. Another effective natural anti-depressant is 5-HTP. (5-hydroxy-tryptophan). It gives the brain the raw materials for making serotonin, which helps depression, carbohydrate cravings and sleep. I have used both of these natural medicines with success in my practice over the past twenty years. I recommend being supervised by your naturopathic doctor before taking them, especially if you are on other medication.

Counselling:  Research shows that counselling, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, can help people learn the skills to overcome depression.  I regularly teach my patients proven, practical skills like relaxation training and mindfulness techniques.  Research shows that Self Compassion practices offer a gentle way of coming to terms with emotions. Counsellors offer insight, trauma work, addiction recovery and more that can help people become more adjusted and alive. Good counselling, combined with natural medical approaches is often a successful combination for the treatment of depression.

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