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The Gut Brain Connection

 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.

For more info take a look at How Do I Know If My Gut Is Unhealthy? and What Is My Microbiome And Why Does It Matter?

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?

Gut Brain Connection

Gut Problems Are Closely Linked To Mental Health Issues

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!).

Gut Brain Issues Interrelated

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!

Leaky Gut

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!

Action Steps

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!

  1. Eat more unprocessed, homemade food and eat less junk food.
  2. In particular eat less refined carbs like white bread, pasta, pastries, cereal, as the bad bacteria LOVE these.
  3. Take a good quality probiotic for at least 3-6 months.
  4. Have a little live, fermented food or drink – like yoghurt, sauerkraut or kombucha – with every meal.
  5. 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.
  6. 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


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45 thoughts on “The Gut Brain Connection”

  1. I learned this during nutrition and really thought that this was interesting. Our gut really is like our second brain

  2. Wow, I had no idea that the gut and brain (though situated far away) has such strong and significant correlations thanks a lot for sharing such insights and now I understand more. – Knycx Journeying

  3. Blair Villanueva

    I always learn something new each time I visit your blog. We need to always take care of our overall health.

  4. I love how down to earth you explain everything and how manageable your tips are, for example, you never say ‘don’t’ or ‘eliminate’, you say ‘less’. it means a lot

  5. That is a big part of why our teachers always told us to eat a nice healthy and full meal before a big test to help our brains function better during the day!

  6. With me working generally late nights and overtime. I have recently been facing a lot of gut related issues. I was doing a bit of research the other day on this topic. Love the information that you have shared and have bookmarked it.

  7. This was such an interesting read. All I can think of now is… forget the chicken or the egg. The new debate is Which came first the Brain Problem Or Gut Problem?

  8. Wow what an informative post. I didnt know if you had IBS that you are more proned to being stressed and depression.

  9. This was a very interesting read, I had no idea that these two could be connected. Eating healthier, home cooked food, is definitely a solution to reducing digestive problems.

  10. Stumbling upon this article was like WHOA! I have suffered from PTSD and have IBS…as well as pre-diabetes. I’m also really big into neuroscience so I definitely pored over this article and REALLY appreciate your actionable steps. Definitely going to incorporate these more into my daily routines. Thanks!

  11. The gut-brain axis refers to the physical and chemical connections between your gut and brain. Millions of nerves and neurons run between your gut and brain. Neurotransmitters and other chemicals produced in your gut also affect your brain. Great reminder. Thanks.

  12. Wow! Thank you for this information. I’ve never realized that there was a gut/brain connection that could be affecting my body.

  13. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing. The most difficult thing for me to do is to try not to eat processed food. It’s quite expensive to eat correctly, but it definitely is something that I want to do more.

  14. Yes it makes my belief strong that what you eat is you are. Secondly we have to take care of our mind for our stomach and we need to take care of our stomach for our brain. so stressful life and healthy eating are the keys.

  15. LOVE this post. My husband suffers from IBS, and my mom has ulcerative colitis. They both have delicate guts that can be thrown off my the smallest of triggers. It can be frustrating that research is in its infancy, but I’m glad that it is happening. The more we know, the more treatments will be available.
    In the meantime, I love your action steps. I always recommend probiotics, either in capsules or naturally in food. And definitely being cautious when it comes to antibiotics; only have them when absolutely necessary!
    Thanks for sharing this info!

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