The respected Journal of Neuroscience called it a ‘paradigm shift’ of enormous magnitude that upsets hundreds of years of neuroscience.
What were they talking about? They were referring to the recent discovery that when our microbiome gets out of balance it can mess up how our brain functions, potentially leading to serious conditions like autism, anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
The subject of gut health is expanding day by day and is currently one of the hottest areas of scientific research.
We’ve learned that the state of our gut doesn’t just affect our digestion, but other fundamental systems in our body such as the immune system and our metabolism.
Our Gut & Brain Are Closely Connected
We’re all gradually getting our heads around this newfound knowledge and figuring out what it means for us on a day to day level. Many people are skeptical.
One suggestion in particular that raises skeptical eyebrows is that the health of our gut and our mental health are closely connected.
Common phrases like ‘gut instinct’ and ‘butterflies in my stomach’ show that we all instinctively know there’s some kind of connection between our gut and brain.
But it’s a big leap from there to suggest that the state of our gut might somehow be playing a role in our depression, autism, schizophrenia or dementia. Or is it?
The Gut and Autism
If you’re into gut health you may have heard of the GAPS diet. It’s very similar to the Paleo diet and is a powerful gut-healing system. It involves making big changes to your diet in order to reboot your gut.
You may be surprised to learn that GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome and it was developed to treat autistic children. It had been noted for some time that people on the autism spectrum often had chronic digestive problems as well as behavioural ones.
GAPS was created by Dr Natasha Campbell McBride to treat her own child who was suffering from autism and was so successful that she started using it in her clinic to treat patients.
Her work was controversial but is being supported by more and more scientific studies on the gut-brain link.
For example it’s been shown that if you have IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) you are more likely to be anxious or depressed than other people.
Which comes first, brain problem or gut problem?
Folks with brain issues such as depression, autism and dementia normally have gut issues and vice versa: folks with gut issues such as IBS and IBD normally have brain issues.
Does the brain issue cause the gut disturbance or is it the other way around: having a bad gut makes us susceptible to brain problems? It’s like a riddle! Which comes first the chicken or the egg?
I believe the answer is BOTH! It appears to be a complex feedback loop with both gut and brain affecting each other.
We know our microbiome is in constant communication with our central nervous system, and that it’s a TWO-WAY conversation.
The good news is we can hack into this process and make BOTH our gut AND brain work better (see action steps below!).
Our Second Brain
The gut is stuffed full of nerve pathways of such complexity that scientists call it the ‘second brain’ or the ‘gut brain’.
There is continual communication between our gut and our brain, going both ways. The vagus nerve (Vagus Baby!!) is the hotline.
Why does the gut brain need to be so sophisticated?! Why does it have as many neurons as our brain?
The gut brain is essentially a supercomputer. It is much more than is needed just to push out a poop! Something this sophisticated would only evolve for a good reason.
Scientists don’t have all the answers yet but we now know the gut and microbiome play a huge role in our immune system. There are thousands of species of friendly microbes inside us, all pushing and pulling in different ways. It makes sense that we would need a supercomputer to keep on top of that!
So how exactly does a broken gut lead to a broken brain? The science is still in its infancy but we’re able to sketch out the mechanism in broad terms:
- The microbiome gets out of balance from a combination of diet, lifestyle and medical reasons.
- This results in too many bad bacteria and not enough good ones.
- The bad bacteria produce chemical byproducts that are toxic to us.
- Without enough friendly microbes, the food we eat isn’t broken down properly..
- The gut lining becomes inflamed and porous. The scientists call it ‘intestinal permeability’. Everyone else calls it leaky gut.
- The nasty bacterial byproducts and undigested proteins from food pass into our bloodstream, where they don’t belong.
- From there, these unwanted chemicals can pass across the blood-brain barrier and mess up our brain’s delicate neurochemistry.
Result: brain function is impaired, perhaps just a little but potentially a lot, with conditions ranging from anxiety and depression to autism and dementia.
It Goes Both Ways
Damage to our microbiome affects our brain, and it’s also the other way around: damage or stress to the brain affects our gut health.
For example, if you’re feeling stressed, your gut suffers and you may notice a worsening in your digestion.
A 2016 study found that people who experience a stroke also suffer damage to their microbiome as a result. Friendly bacteria die back and become dominated by unhelpful ones following the stroke, leading to an increase in leaky gut.
In the same study, scientists found that transplanting microbes from healthy mice helped sick mice to recover from strokes. This means that in the future, people who suffer from stroke might have their recovery speeded up by receiving treatment on their microbiome.
That microbiome treatment may include fecal transplants from healthy donors. And when I say fecal transplant, yes… I mean poop transplant! Eww gross! But then again, if it works, it’s worth it!
So why not maximise your chances of getting over mental health problem by fixing your gut?
For simple steps you can take today, here are my 6 dead-easy steps to switch your microbiome from lousy to awesome!
- Eat more unprocessed, homemade food and eat less junk food.
- In particular eat less refined carbs like white bread, pasta, pastries, cereal, as the bad bacteria LOVE these
- Take a good quality probiotic for at least 3-6 months.
- Have a little live, fermented food or drink – like yoghurt, sauerkraut or kombucha – with every meal
- Don’t go crazy on the antibiotics! Be guided by your doctor, but you don’t need them as much as you think. Save them for real emergencies and instead try a natural antibiotic.
- Lifestyle – make at least one change today out of this list:
- Exercise consistently, light or heavy intensity, both help our friendly gut bugs.
- Drink less alcohol!
- Be less stressed!
You can also explore the topic further in Brain Health Begins In Your Gut