I was very fortunate to attend a 6-hour continuing education class given by a Neuroscientist this week. The topic was the gut-brain connection and the association with stress, appetite, digestion, and mood. She talked about the gut-brain connection and how the microbes communicate with our brain and vice versa. Most of this communication comes through the Vagus nerve, but microbes can also produce our neurotransmitters and send signals directly to the brain.
The speaker also talked about how our microbiome and gut health is affected by stress. Stress can either be “bottom-up” or “top-down” stressors. “Bottom-up” stressors can be things like exhaustion, illness, bleeding, pain, sleep loss, chronic inflammation, and dysbiosis (an imbalanced microbiome). “Top-down” stressors can be frustration, social/relationship issues, workplace stressors, or money issues.
These stressors can lead to a breakdown in the intestinal wall leading to what is known as “leaky gut.” Leaky gut leads to systemic inflammation and many chronic diseases. Anxiety, depression, metabolic disorders, and high blood pressure are all linked to leaky gut and dysbiosis.
Gut microbiome dysfunction is also linked to cognitive decline in Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. In fact, there was a research study that looked at the charts of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and found that 80-90% of these patients had consulted their healthcare providers in the past about gut issues.
There is also an increased risk for hypersensitivity to pain. So, bacterial overgrowth can lead to endotoxemia, which reprograms the body to “overreact” to painful stimuli. This is especially true for things like GERD/heartburn and irritable bowel disorders.
Everyone has stress that they must deal with, but that stress may be affecting your microbiome in your gut, which is leading to even more physical stress in your body. Coping with stress can be as simple as renaming it. “Stress” sounds a bit overwhelming and out of our control but calling it a “challenge” sounds like something we can problem-solve and overcome.
There were some other things that I found very interesting. Dysbiosis can also come from past stressors in childhood. So significant illnesses like hospitalizations or many courses of antibiotics, emotional stressors like divorce, or being born via c-section – all of these can cause dysbiosis well into adulthood.
Neurodevelopment disorders like autism spectrum, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder have shown a link to gut dysfunction. In fact, people with schizophrenia are five times more likely to have celiac disease than the general population. Those with schizophrenia and celiac disease show marked improvement on symptoms with a gluten-free diet. People on the autism spectrum found improvement in physical and cognitive symptoms with fecal transplantation. So, with fecal transplantation they take the bacterial species of a healthy neurotypical person and put it into someone else either with an enema, GI tube, or a capsule.
Something else that I thought was interesting was about emotional eating. If you have ever experienced food insecurity, you are much more likely to overeat or eat to self-soothe during stressful times. Understanding this emotional connection to food can be a powerful tool to switch to a more mindful eating pattern. Your body sends subtle signals that you have had enough to eat (that fullness feeling – that’s a last-ditch effort to get you to stop eating). Eating slowly and savoring every bite can give your body a chance to send the signals that says you are done. Time-restricted eating is another method to overcome emotional eating. So, only eating for a set 8-10 hours in the day, but if it is after that window, you don’t eat.
So, with all the stress, emotions, and dysbiosis – is there a way to fix it? Of course! FOOD. As I have said before, food is medicine. Eating the right kinds of foods to support the good bacteria in the gut is the single most successful method for creating a healthy microbiome. The good guys in the gut need fiber. They need colorful fruits and vegetables. They need whole grains. They need these things to produce butyrate, which is the energy source for other microbes as well as our epithelial cells that line our gut. Butyrate also signals the immune cells in our gut to be more tolerant of certain foods and microbes to reduce GI side effects and sensitivities to particular foods.
Avoiding these foods (unless severe sensitivities or allergies) can worsen the body’s response to that food. So, performing an elimination diet to allow the gut to “settle down” is a good thing, but then you also have to reintroduce the food to see if your body tolerates it. Changing the microbes in your gut can also lead to better tolerance.
Some foods that are good for the microbiome and butyrate production are quinoa, curcumin (or turmeric), and omega-3 & -6 fatty acids. Red foods like berries, tomatoes, cranberries, and red onions contain resveratrol and quercetin which act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Blueberries and black beans have been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Fermented foods like kefir, Greek yogurt, and kimchi are good for introducing new species to the gut, but you have to eat plenty of vegetables and fruits to support their growth.
So, the bottom line is a plant-based diet is the best way to change your microbiome in your gut to support the “good” species and provide better overall health.
Eat the rainbow! Food is medicine!
Are you ready to PIVOT to functional health and wellness?