In a previous post I mentioned the importance of physical health for mental wellbeing. However, the link between the two is much deeper and stronger than you may have ever realised. Specifically I am referring to the link between the gut and the brain. Scientists have proven that there is a direct, back and forth line of communication and activity between these two parts of the body, which means that what goes on in one affects the other and vice versa. The gut has long been referred to as the second brain, a description that is proving more and more apt the further science delves into this connection.
Interest in the gut- brain connection has increased over the last number of years with professionals from a variety of fields focusing on the effects of poor gut health on overall body function. Nutritional experts and dermatologists (e.g. Patrick Holford, Dr. Josh Axe, Dr. Nigma Talib) have studied the problems that occur in the body as a result of gut issues, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), thyroid malfunction, acne and even asthma (these are all inflammatory conditions that begin in the gut). On the brain end of the gut-brain connection, psychologists and other mental health professionals have looked at the link between poor gut health and mental functioning. In 2004 Natasha Campbell McBride wrote a book about this connection called "Gut and Psychology Syndrome" in which she identifies a causal link between poor gut function and autism. Other practitioners and research have focused on the connection between the health of the gut and depression and anxiety. While stress and anxiety certainly can have an impact on the healthy functioning of the stomach, and this had been known for many years, it now seems that the connection flows in two directions. If the health of the gut is poor this can also have an effect on the brain, leading to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, stress and even degenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer's.
So what does all this mean for you? This causal gut-brain link focuses attention even more on the need for proper physical health in order to maintain healthy mental functioning. How we look after our physical health is not simply going to 'help' our mental health issues, it could be a prime factor. And if physical health starts in the gut then the food we eat is most certainly of great importance.
Dr. Josh Axe is a champion of good gut health and he speaks often about the prevalence of poor gut function in typical western populations, due in large part to diet, but also due to modern lifestyle and environmental stressors. He refers to the effect of all this on the gut as Leaky Gut Syndrome, which is rampant in individuals in modern western society. In Leaky Gut Syndrome, the intestinal wall has become weak and porous due to poor food choices, which have assaulted the gut lining. This leads to large, undigested food molecules 'leaking out' into the surrounding tissues and causing inflammation in the body. This inflammation causes many of the physical conditions mentioned above as well as mental health issues and brain degeneration over time.
Moreover, poor gut function also affects the gut flora or 'microbiome' of the gut which has a direct influence over the feel good chemicals present in the body. When the gut microbiome is out of sync these feel good chemicals do not function properly and have an affect on our mood leading to anxiety and depression.
In order to reverse these problem and maintain proper gut health it is crucial to make better food choices and identify food sensitivities. Dr. Nigma Talib has identified common food allergens that exacerbate leaky gut issues. These include dairy, gluten, sugar and alcohol. In many people, these foods are known to cause severe inflammation over time, and reducing or eliminating intake could be crucial for your gut health.
Besides identifying your gut stressors, here are some general rules when it comes to gut health:
Most of your food intake should come from fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats and other unprocessed foods.
Processed foods wreak havoc on the gut and should be greatly reduced or eliminated.
Probiotic foods and supplements can help to balance the gut flora which are thrown out of sync due to processed foods, sugar, alcohol and antibiotics.
Omega three fatty acids from fish or nut sources can help to heal the gut.
certain supplements can also help to heal gut damage such as MSM, a sulphur based compound that helps to reduce inflammation.
Drinking plenty of fresh, clean water will help to flush toxins from the body. There is no drink better for the body than pure water no matter what brand marketers will have you believe!
This is a very brief introduction to the gut-brain connection, Leaky Gut Syndrome and the ways to counteract it. If you would like to know more about these issues please consult my list of references below.
Dr. Edward Group (2016), 'Surprising Link Between Depression, Anxiety, and Gut Health', Global Healing Center. Online: https://www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/link-between-depression-anxiety-and-gut-health/
D.r Josh Axe (2016), Eat Dirt. London: Bluebird.
Dr. Josn Axe, https://draxe.com/leaky-gut-diet-treatment/
Dr. Nigma Talib (2016), Younger Skin Starts in the Gut. California: Ulysses Press.
Natasha Campbell McBride (2010), Gut and Psychology Syndrome. Vermont: Medinform Publishing.
Ellen Hendriksen (2017), "Is Your Gut Making You Depressed or Anxious." Scientific American. Online: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-your-gut-making-you-depressed-or-anxious/
Patrick Holford (2009), New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind. California: Basic Health Publications.