The Science Behind the Gut-Brain Connection

The interaction between the gut-brain connection is very complex, with both organ systems having the ability to influence each other and communicate in numerous ways.  A healthy gut is key to good health.

For instance, have you ever suffered from anxiety and at the same time experienced discomfort in your Gastro-intestinal (GI) tract? This is one example of how the brain and GI tract are connected and how symptoms can occur in both at the same time.

Most people do not realize that the majority of the immune system and our neurotransmitters, which are chemicals associated with mood, focus, and memory, are located in the gut. One of those chemicals, serotonin, is linked with anxiety and depression. However, it also has numerous functions in the GI tract, including Gastro-intestinal motility or movement. Additionally, the precursor to serotonin, tryptophan, may even be metabolized, or broken down, by intestinal bacteria in the GI tract, depleting the amount available for the brain. The result is depression and/or anxiety. Finally, antihistamines are neurotransmitters involved in mood, motivation, focus and attention, but they also affect gastrointestinal motility and closing “the gates” in the GI tract. When antihistamines are low, you may experience reflex because “the gate” between the stomach and esophagus cannot close and thus function correctly. In addition to having reflex, a person may have to urinate more frequently and at the same time have difficulty focusing….All good examples of the brain/gut connection.

How can the brain impact the GI tract? When we are under a lot of stress, the brain releases a chemical, Coriolis Releasing Factor or CRF, to help us cope with stress. This has numerous impacts on the immune system and energy utilization. If stress is ongoing, over time CRF can damage and change the permeability or porousness of the gut. causing an increase in bacteria. In explanation, when the permeability is changed, the barrier between the GI tract and body is altered, allowing the passage of undigested food and toxins into the blood stream. This can result in chronic, low-grade inflammation or immune system dysfunction, as well as malabsorption. If absorption is poor, you may become depleted of essential nutrients making you even more susceptible to diseases. Thus, stress leads to physical ailments and affects the way in which you interpret and react to that stress. A vicious cycle has started.

How can the GI tract impact the brain? Anything that damages the GI tract or alters its intestinal bacteria and permeability can have terrible consequences. Antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors, stress, preservatives, chemical sensitivities such as sulfur and ammonia, alcohol, sugar and dairy products, along with food sensitivities or allergies, are just a few of the common examples we are exposed to that can damage our GI tracts. These can either impair the lining of the GI tract affecting permeability or predispose us to abnormal flora/bacteria in the intestine. You may end up with bacteria that releases toxins that are harmful. Altered permeability and flora result in inflammation, impacting the body and brain. Consider how bad you feel when you are sick with a virus and how it causes your thinking to be “cloudy.” This issue is the result of a poorly functioning immune system. The immune system is intended to help us quickly clear pathogens and then return to a normal state. Can you imagine what chronic, low-grade inflammation from a damaged GI tract does to your brain over a long period of time?

Finally, if a bacterial overgrowth occurs in the GI tract, excess ammonia is released into the blood stream. This ammonia has the pH of bleach! High ammonia levels can cause cloudy and foggy thinking, fatigue, depression, irritability, anxiety, achy or sore joints and more. Other common symptoms include cold hands, fingers and toes, which doctors often misdiagnosed as a thyroid problem.

The GI tract and brain are intricately connected in numerous ways. Current studies indicate that these two organ systems go hand-in-hand. Thus, it is imperative to treat the causes of GI tract issues and not settle for just addressing the symptoms. Otherwise the disease process will continue. New health issues will arise and appear to be unrelated, but in reality they will have a common origin.

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Dr Waldo

Ralph Waldo, M.D. is a functional and integrative doctor practicing in Carmel, Indiana. He graduated from Indiana University with degrees in biology and psychology, following which he received an M.S. in Physiology and Biophysics.  In 1999 he obtained his medical degree from Indiana University School of Medicine.  

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