A Healthy Gut Means a Healthy Brain
May 12th, 2014
Do you suffer from brain fog, difficulty making decisions, anxiety, depression, and mood swings, or attention disorders such as ADD or ADHD? If so you’ve probably been told that those traits are just a part of your personality, something that requires medication. You’ve likely been told diet has nothing to do with your symptoms, and I’m sure your doctor is not suggesting it has anything to do with your gut!
In my clinic, I find that the vast majority of psychological symptoms and mood imbalances aren’t an irreversible consequence of one’s genetic makeup. In fact, their presence is determined by a much more variable factor: what’s going on in your gut. Having a healthy gut is key to having a healthy brain.
The Gut is the Second Brain
Conventional medicine views the body in distinct systems and psychological stressors as independent from the rest of the body, but in actuality our brains are inextricably tied to our gastrointestinal tract. This is because 90-95% of our serotonin, the key neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood, is made in our gut. A deficiency in serotonin causes depression and in some anxiety–in fact, the majority of antidepressants work by blocking the brain’s serotonin receptors, freeing up more of the chemical to remain present in the brain. Serotonin and other vital neurotransmitters travel from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve, the longest nerve that emerges directly from the brain.
Because chemical signals travel both from the gut to the brain and vice versa, those with gastrointestinal symptoms are at a higher risk of mood imbalances, anxiety, and depression. In order to solve the problem, or prevent future symptoms, you must address the root cause: something is happening in the gut to suppress your ability to make your serotonin.
How is Your Gut Causing Brain Symptoms?
Certainly there are some psychological conditions that do not originate from gut imbalances alone. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and other major conditions have significant genetic and environmental components. Medication and certain therapies might be necessary in addition to fixing the gut in order to maintain a high quality of life. However, the vast majority of psychological complaints suffered by the general population such as brain fog, anxiety, depression, mood swings, and concentration issues are rooted in neurotransmitter imbalances that begin in the gut. So how do these imbalances occur? Most people can attribute their symptoms to one or both of these causes: infections, and food sensitivities.
1. Infections in the Gut
The two most common infections I see in my practice are Candida or yeast overgrowth and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). When the good bacteria that keep yeast levels in check are out of balance, either from taking a round of antibiotics, drinking too much alcohol, eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates, or long term birth control pill use, the yeast become too numerous. I find that the yeast then coats the lining of your intestinal tract, and suppresses your ability to make or secrete your serotonin. Candida or yeast also affects your brain and mood function by producing chemicals that are directly toxic to the brain. This is why so many of my patients suffering from Candida overgrowth complain of brain fog, poor memory, and depression or anxiety. By treating or killing the yeast, I will see anxiety, depression, brain fog, attention, and concentration issues completely disappear.
Similarly, SIBO occurs when the bacteria in our gut get out of balance and overgrow. This happens for many different reasons, but the most common cause I see is from a diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol. Your bacterial flora has a very direct impact on your mood and personality. SIBO can affect your mood by causing B12 deficiency, and incredibly bacteria produce chemicals which actually mimic our own neurotransmitters. One clinical study found that changing the balance and type of gut bacteria in mice, with dietary adjustments, antibiotics, and probiotics, actually changed the animals’ personalities and behaviors.
We know that changing your diet for just one day can have a significant impact on which bacteria thrive and which die in the gut.
Certain foods can actually cause psychological symptoms. Some are obvious–for example, caffeine exacerbates symptoms of anxiety–but others are more subtle. Dairy contain a protein called casein and wheat, barley, and rye contain a protein called gluten. Gluten and casein contain proteins that are naturally occurring opioids called casomorphins and gluteomorphins. In susceptible individuals, eating dairy and gluten can act like morphine in the body and cause a feeling of euphoria when eaten. This is one of the reasons certain people are actually addicted to gluten and dairy and why they crave it and have withdrawal symptoms if they don’t eat it every day.
Our modern day, fast paced lifestyle has lead most of us to eating many processed and packaged foods filled with gluten, dairy, soy, and corn. These foods are very inflammatory for most of us. They inflame our guts, leading to leaky gut, and they inflame our brains leading to mood and mind disorders. Leaky gut also affects our ability to properly digest and absorb nutrients, which over time can lead to vitamin deficiencies. The most common nutrient deficiencies I see are in omega 3 fatty acids, zinc, and B vitamins, all of which are crucial for mood and mind health and brain function.
The Solution without Medication
The key to treating many of the most common psychological symptoms is recognizing that most are actually rooted in your gut, not your brain. The goal should be to restore the balance of your intestinal flora by treating infections and avoiding problematic foods. To identify which foods are a problem for you, try an elimination diet. If you’re suffering from candida overgrowth or SIBO, you must fix your gut and avoid fermented foods, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol. In the meantime, you can support your body’s production of serotonin with a supplement called Zen, which promotes serotonin and GABA for improved mood, reduced stress and anxiety, and better sleep.
For those suffering from psychological symptoms, it can seem like a losing battle. Don’t throw up your hands just yet–the factors with the most determination in your mental health are more controllable than you think. If you already suffer from digestive issues, it’s imperative that you heal your gut and get your body back in balance in order to maintain your psychological health.