What is the Brain-Cut Connection?
Introducing Alice Howlett, a freedom seeker, Bachelor qualified Naturopath, Massage therapist and Yoga Teacher. She is also founder of The Wilder Method Clinic near Narooma, NSW, a supportive space to unwind, to connect with your community and feel empowered in your health journey.
Alice runs The Wilder Method Retreats supported by a team of highly trained professionals from naturopaths, counsellors, yoga teachers and massage therapists, all dedicated to each participants health and wellbeing.
Here Alice explains the Brain-Gut Connection, one of the topics covered in her workshops.
The communication system between your brain and digestive system is known as the gut-brain axis and if you’ve ever experienced the feeling of ‘butterflies’ in your stomach, you
have known an example of this connected network. There are four main biochemical and physical ways the gut and brain are inter-related.
The first is the nervous system and the vagus nerve. This nerve is the one of the most important signal routes for messages from the brain to the gut and vice versa as it is fast and direct. It picks
up data within our external environment in 7 seconds and sends it to the amygdala centre in the brain to tell us whether we are essentially ‘safe’ or ‘not safe’. Our nervous system reaction then
dictates our stress response, taking the body into parasympathetic or sympathetic dominance.
Human experiments have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve at different frequencies can make us feel comfortable or anxious. Essentially the vagus nerve is like a telephone connection,
relaying codes from the large surface area of receptors in the gut to the brain for deciphering and co-operating information.
There are around 500 million neurons in the gut that communicate with the 100 billion neurons in the brain through this vagus nerve in the central nervous system. Neurons are naturally occurring cells that direct your body on how to behave. Stress can stop these vagus nerve signals and influence gastrointestinal problems. An animal study found that when mice were fed a probiotic, the probiotic in the gut could lower the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) present in their blood, but when outside of the body the probiotic had no effect on the stress hormone, indicating how important the role of the vagus nerve is within the gut-brain axis. It has also been shown how many bacteria can alter areas of the brain, especially areas responsible for processing emotions and pain.
The second are chemical’s called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters balance emotions and feelings through the brain-gut connection. Your gut creates millions of neurotransmitters in the
cells that communicate with the brain through various mechanisms including the HPA-axis and dopaminergic system. For example, Serotonin helps control your internal body clock and increases feel good hormones. Many microbes in the gut also help create GABA, an essential neurotransmitter for managing anxiety and fear. People with irritable bowel syndrome or dysbiosis have an above-average incidence of anxiety and depressive disorders.
Thirdly, the immune system is a major player in the mind-gut connection. The microbes in your gut help control what your body passes as fuel or excretes, this in itself is an immune protection
response and filters inflammatory mediators. Inflammation is a cause for many different brain conditions, including depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Leaky gut is a condition in
which the tight junctions in the gut wall lose their integrity, causing an infiltration of larger particles through the microvilli in the gut wall and promote inflammation, also from too much
lipopolysaccharide (a toxin produced from certain bacteria) passing into the bloodstream.
Lastly, Microbes in the digestive tract can directly impact your brain functions as they produce certain chemicals. Gut microbes produce a high number of short-chain fatty acids like acetate,
propionate and butyrate made by digesting fibres. Butyrate is important for the blood-brain barrier, protecting the brain from pathogens and toxins that can cause infection, whilst allowing
vital nutrients through. Gut microbes also play a role in metabolizing bile acids and amino acids into particular chemicals needed in the brain. Studies have shown links with social disorders and
stress to altering genes involved in production of certain gut bacteria and bile acids.
One of our bodies main stress response adaptations is to divert energy from the digestive system to other areas of the body, resulting in reduced function, mucus and blood supply in the gut. Emotions play a huge part in the stress response and can also directly impact how our GI tract moves. Anger, anxiety, sadness, fear are some of these feelings that can speed up or slow down our digestive process. They can also contribute to a range of GI conditions such as IBS, IBD, food intolerances and GORD. Changes to your gut bacteria and inflammation can have a huge ripple effect throughout your body, which may contribute to depression, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, and anxiety.
To help strengthen this communication feedback loop system between the brain and gut include lots of these in your diet; fermented foods, high fibre, leafy greens, low-fructose fruits, omega-3
fatty acids, polyphenol (antioxidants) such as green tea, cocoa, olive oil, and trypotphan rich foods or serotonin (eggs, turkey, brazil nuts).
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