What is the brain-gut axis?
I recently watched a fascinating interview on The Digestive Session Series that Sean Croxton had with Dr. Datiz Kharrazian entitled “The Brain-Gut Axis: How to Train your Brain for Better Bowel Movements.” I highly recommend watching this interview if you have any gut issues. While I do know that our psychological state plays an important role on our physical health, I had no idea how closely tied our gut and brain are. In the western world, we have been conditioned to believe that “x causes y.” We treat the symptom with a pill, hoping we will feel better. This however is only a short-term solution. To fully heal oneself, you need to get to the root of the problem, and usually there is more than just one problem.
Is it legitimate?
Eastern medicine, which has been in existence for 3,000 years, is based on a true holistic approach, where our systems are interconnected. Chris Kresser, M.S. explains that Chinese medicine looks at each system in the body on a physical, emotional, psychological, and psycho-spiritual level. Many recognized leaders in the functional medical world are diving into the root causes of gut issues and brain degenerative diseases. The data they are coming up with is really mind blowing. I am particularly fascinated by the brain-gut axis. Bowel control is neurologically based; our brains consciously have to move our nutrients through our gastrointestinal tract. This means when the brain is not functioning normally, our body can’t function properly either.
My personal struggles
In my previous post, I wrote about my own struggles with poor gut health and terrible abdominal pain. When I first started having this pain, I also began taking Xanax for my anxiety that suddenly surfaced. I kept a food diary where I would take notes about what I ate 72 hours before having a painful “gut episode.” I noticed a connection. While certain foods did inflame my body and cause pain, my anxiety due to stressful events often sparked these painful, stomach-wrenching outbreaks. After I completed a strict sugar detox a couple months ago, I realized that my pain was not aggravated by food, but rather a failure in my brain-gut feedback!
Dr. Kharrazian explains that if brain function is not firing properly, brain control for mobility (including digestion) will degenerate. Chris Kresser talks all about the science behind this in a very insightful podcast here. Below, I will discuss the positive correlation between brain degeneration and gut inflammation and give some diet and lifestyle tips to help prevent this! Did you know the brain degenerative Parkinson’s disease begins in the gut? Protein builds up between the nerves in the gut, leading to the nerves inability to communicate with one another. When they can’t communicate, they die off. When this brain-gut feedback is disturbed, we’ve created an environment for autoimmunity.
There have been numerous brain-gut studies on football players who have experienced brain trauma. Within only 3 hours of brain injury, these athletes have some degree of intestinal permeability, which is the fancy name for leaky gut. The only time these players did not have leaky gut after brain trauma was when their vagas nerve, the part of the brain that activates gut motility, was stimulated. Many football players who have experienced traumatic brain injury often develop autoimmune diseases.
How to prevent brain-gut failure
You might be wondering how can promote optimal brain-gut feedback? According to Dr. Kharrazian and Dr. Kresser, there are several ways:
1. Stress management
· Make time for yourself! Meditate, take a bath, do yoga, go on a hike, read, watch a funny movie, go out with friends, dance!
2. Educate yourself
· Constantly challenge your brain! The more you practice developing a skill, the more efficient you become at it, and the less neurotransmitters your brains needs to use to learn that skill.
3. Work out
· Working out gets your blood pumping, and the brain needs oxygen to function. Exercise also helps reduce stress!
4. Avoid inflammatory foods
· Consume foods that improve brain function. This means eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, monounsaturated fats, high quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Avoid processed junk and high-carb foods like bread and pasta.
· Eating foods that will increase blood flow to the brain are beneficial as well. Think pink and red fruits and vegetables, including cayenne, dark chocolate, ginkgo, and ginger. When we create a healthy environment for our brain, our neurotransmitter function can work the way it was created to, rather than having to repair inflammation (which is caused by sugar) and degeneration.
5. Avoid gluten
· Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut and oats, has been hybridized and processed to make it highly inflammatory to our bodies. It produces an immune response in the brain and within our nervous system.
6. Sing your heart out!
· When you sing loudly, the vagal motor nuclei are activated, and will then aid the intestinal immune system.
7. Gargling and gagging
· Induce the gag reflex using a tongue depressor, so your eyes tear. This will fire signals to the vagas nerve (mentioned above), which sends feedback to the intestinal immune system, among other systems, and promotes brain-gut connectivity, according to Dr. Kharrazian.