Healing the Gut to Heal the Brain, part 1
April 17th, 2018 by admin
Earlier in 2018, I had the privilege of speaking at the New Mexico Wellness Symposium. I spoke on healing Hashimoto’s (autoimmune hypothyroidism–the #1 cause of all hypothyroidism) with a root cause Functional Medicine approach. I also sat on the Gut Health Panel. My topic for the Gut Health Panel was, “Reframing Stress to Rebalance the Gut-Brain Axis.” I want to talk about this today, because this is an area of gut healing that is given A LOT of nods in Functional and Integrative medicine, but not a lot of DEEP application. I also want to tie this in with brain health, because a “leaky brain” starts with a “leaky gut”, and ironically, a “leaky gut” starts with the brain.
In part 1, I will focus on the physical aspects of healing the gut-brain, and set the stage for Part 2, where I will focus on the all-important, but often poorly addressed, aspect of healing the mind (re-wiring our thought processes through the exploration of consciousness) to support the healing of the gut-brain, and all aspects of health and well being.
In the world of Functional Medicine and Functional Nutrition, we know that addressing gut health is THE key to taming inflammation, no matter where it’s focused in the body. That’s because 70 to 80% of immune tissue is housed in the gut. This means that if there’s inflammation in the gut, due to microbial imbalance, compromised digestion, toxin exposure, nutrient deficiency or insufficiency, infection, stress, etc., the entire immune system becomes activated in a harmful, overly reactive manner. This happens because the inflammation in the gut causes the gut lining to become leaky, allowing large molecules like microbes and their waste products, other toxins, and undigested proteins to enter the blood stream. When these molecules enter the blood stream, which is not supposed to happen, the immune system becomes activated against these molecules, or antigens.
Due to the intimate connectivity between the gut and brain, an inflamed gut, leads to an inflamed brain. This low-grade inflammation of the brain leads to a compromised blood-brain-barrier, which allows molecules from the blood stream to pass through to the brain tissue, causing further complications and leading to sub-optimal brain functioning. This is what is known as “leaky brain,” and we know from research that it is associated with depression, anxiety, brain fog, and autoimmune brain problems.
Because of the gut-brain axis, the bi-directional communication between the enteric nervous system of the gut and the Central Nervous System (we’ll call this the brain), we also focus on healing the gut as a key aspect of the approach to healing, or at the very least, alleviating and/or slowing, neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental conditions. We can also optimize mood regulation, every day cognitive function, and tolerance to life stressors by healing the gut, because the reduced inflammation in the gut results in decreased inflammation in the brain and improved neurotransmitter balance and function.
Now, there is one more factor that impacts the gut, in this Gut-Brain Axis, and this is intestinal microbiota–bacteria, viruses, and fungi which inhabit the gut and outnumber our human cells by 10-fold–which are largely responsible for regulating gut and overall health, including immune function and inflammatory balance. For this reason, it is more accurate to call the communication system between the gut and brain, the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis (MBGA).
The microbiota are the first to be impacted by acute emotional stress, which causes an immediate inflammatory shift in the microbiome, leading to inflammation in the gut and onto the brain via the MBGA. Notice, though, that the microbiota do not start the trouble. It is the perception of emotional stress, which starts with a thought that is unconsciously believed, that stimulates the signal to the microbiota to shift, resulting in an inflammatory cascade. In this way, gut-brain inflammation often starts with the brain (thoughts), although physical insults like antibiotics, surgery, or radiation can certainly cause the inflammatory shift. Most research on healing the gut-brain axis is focused on what can physically be done for the gut. I’ll detail that here in Part 1.
In the Functional Medicine approach, we primarily address gut-brain health with what is called a “5R Approach.” Here it is below, in a nutshell, as described by the Institute for Functional Medicine, and I have adapted/expanded a bit as well.
Functional Medicine 5R Approach to Gut Restoration
Remove stressors: get rid of things that negatively affect the environment of the GI tract including allergenic foods, parasites, and potential problematic bacteria or yeast. In my practice, we also prioritize the removal/release of toxic and limiting beliefs and lines of thinking, as these begin the inflammatory cascade in the gut. More on this in Part 2.
Physically, the Remove aspect of the 5R Approach, typically involves an allergy “elimination diet” to find out what foods are causing GI symptoms, and it often involves taking medications or herbs to curb and bring back into balance, a particular bug (there may be multiple co-infections, actually) that is overgrown and driving inflammation in the gut and beyond.
There are many ways to conduct an elimination diet. We can start with eliminating 1-2 food types, like gluten and/or dairy, or we can go all in and eliminate all of the most common triggers, including gluten, dairy, egg, soy, wheat, corn, added sugars, grains, legumes, nightshades, chocolate, and coffee. Typically, we get the best results from taking more out at once, but we always work with the individual to find an approach that they are realistically ready for.
Replace digestive secretions: add back things like digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid, and bile acids (or take herbs that naturally stimulate the production of these digestive secretions) that are required for proper digestion and that may be compromised by diet, inflammation, medications, diseases, aging, or other factors.
In my practice, we also replace limiting beliefs and lines of thinking with more expansive beliefs and lines of thinking that are aligned with the truth of the Soul (basically, unconditional love and unlimited potential). More on this in Part 2.
Help beneficial bacteria flourish by ingesting probiotic foods or supplements that contain the “good” GI bacteria such as bifidobacteria and lactobacillus species, and by consuming the high soluble fiber foods that good bugs like to eat, called prebiotics.
Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms found in the gut that are also called “friendly bacteria.” Use of antibiotics kills both commensal (aka: “good”, but these can be harmful if overgrown) and potentially pathogenic (aka: “bad”, but they are only bad when overgrown) bacteria. Probiotics in the form of supplements or food are often needed to help re-establish a balanced gut flora. Fermented foods, such as lacto-fermented sauerkraut, pickles, and salsa, kimchi, kefir, kefir water, yogurt, miso, and tempeh are food sources of probiotics. Spore-based probiotic supplements are typically what I recommend in cases of autoimmunity and severe GI symptoms, such as MegaSporeBiotic.
Prebiotics are food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth of beneficial microorganisms already in the colon. In other words, prebiotics feed probiotics. Prebiotics are available in many foods that contain a fiber called inulin, including artichokes, garlic, leeks, onion, chicory, and tofu (sparingly and preferably organic and made from sprouted soybeans). Grains such as barley, flax, oats, and wheat are also good sources of prebiotics. Cooked and chilled potatoes and starchy veggies, as well as green bananas, are an excellent source of resistant starch, which not only feeds commensal bacteria, but helps to balance blood sugars, too. A good prebiotic supplement is partially hydrolyzed guar gum (PHGG/Sunfiber), which is tasteless and odorless, and mixes well into any beverage. It helps to balance GI function and will either slow or speed up motility (movement of food through the GI tract), depending on what is needed. In other words, it helps with both constipation and diarrhea.
Help the lining of the GI tract repair itself by supplying key nutrients that can often be in short supply in a compromised gut, such as zinc, antioxidants (e.g. vitamins A, C, and E), fish or algal oil to supply anti-inflammatory fatty acids EPA and DHA, and the amino acid l-glutamine. Drinking raw cabbage juice can help to repair the gut lining, as can fermented foods, when appropriate for/tolerated by the individual.
It is important to pay attention to lifestyle choices. Sleep, exercise, and stress can all affect the GI tract. Balancing these is important to an optimal digestive tract.
Notice how quickly and generally re-balancing is addressed in the outline of the 5R approach. With the complexity and importance of the other parts, it is incredibly easy to neglect addressing this in-depth for oneself, or as a practitioner in creating a plan of care and making referrals, but if healing is to be fully achieved and sustained, re-balancing must not be overlooked. In part 2, I will further discuss:
- Why gut health goes awry.
- Why rebalancing via stress *prevention*, through the re-programming of the mind, is THE KEY to fully healing a “leaky gut”, which in turn, helps heal a “leaky brain.”
- How experience (including stress) is created 100% of the time, without exception.
- Mediation 2.0 and Mental Re-Programming for optimal gut, brain, and overall health.
Until next time, I hope this serves you well.
Here’s to accessing your full healing potential and wellness beyond the status quo.
Angie King-Nosseir MS, RDN, LD
Functional Medicine Nutritionist & Transformative Coach
Gourmet Healer, LLC