If all the great songs in the world were to be considered anatomically accurate, they should replace the heart with the gut. Total Eclipse of the Gut and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Gut Club Band might not have the same poetry but would better represent how our bodies react.
We do talk about butterflies in our stomach and having a gut-wrenching experience, which speaks of the link between the mind and the gut. Therefore, it is no surprise to say that our gastrointestinal tract, our gut, is highly sensitive to the workings of our minds.
If you read a guide to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you will find that one of the significant contributory factors is stress. With a condition that can make such a difference to our lives, it is a good idea to know a little more.
The science behind the mind-gut connection
The walls of the digestive system contain the enteric nervous system (ENS). Therefore, the brain could literally be said to be in the gut. The ENS controls our digestions. To digest food, we first need the function of swallowing; then we need to release enzymes that break that food down, which all happen with the help of the nerves in our gut.
Research on the ENS suggests that it directly communicates back and forth with the brain. Some examples make this seem more common-sense than science. When we watch a television show about cake baking, we are then prompted to feel hungry and so desire the food. When we are about to sit an examination, a common reaction is to feel sick.
How this basic understanding of the connection helps
Doctors and scientists are interested in this mind-gut connection because it can help with the treatment of gastrointestinal illnesses. A common strategy for the management of gut health could be antidepressants or medication that manage the levels of anxiety felt by the individual.
The connection moves both ways and is a continuous feedback loop. The quality of our nutritional intake directly impacts on our mood and our capacity to think clearly. Many patients who have taken probiotics as part of treatments of mood disorders have shown a much more significant improvement in mood compared to those who have taken a placebo, for instance. We are told daily in the news of the benefits of a balanced, healthy diet and part of this is the direct connection between the mind and the gut.
Leaky Gut and the brain
Leaky Gut is becoming more common. Its official name is increased intestinal permeability. This is where the bacteria and toxins usually contained in the gut leak through the intestinal walls. This can lead to diarrhoea, constipation, burping or bloating, nutritional deficiencies, lower immunity and excessive fatigue.
However, Leaky Gut also contributes to an increased inflammation within the body, and this causes the blood-brain barrier to also leak. Therefore, the toxins leaked from the gut can enter the brain, causing headaches, memory loss and a fogginess. Thus, the intestinal tract acts as a barrier for the body to process essential water and nutrients to the brain while protecting the brain from these more harmful substances.
Many brain-based conditions have been associated with leaking toxins from the gut, including Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis and strokes. The connection is made thanks to the tracking of the marker for elevated inflammation in the body and therefore understanding the permeability of the blood-brain barrier. There are also said to be higher levels of homocysteine, an amino acid.
How this more advanced understanding could help
Researchers continue to probe the link between the gut and the brain because of this possible link between our intestinal tract and such conditions as Alzheimer’s. A proven relationship between homocysteine and the permeability of the blood-brain barrier could lead to Vitamin B being a genuine solution, as it can turn this amino acid into glutathione, which will then act as an antioxidant and so reduce inflammation and assist the auto-immune system.
For those of us seeking to make the most of this science into the mind-gut connection, the advice is manageable. We should avoid processed food, eating whole foods that will improve our digestion, as well as balance our blood sugar. We should eat probiotic-rich foods, such as legumes. Finally, aim to eat mostly healthy fats found in nuts, avocados, sesame seeds and olive oil.