The brain and the gastrointestinal tract should be viewed as one system, rather than two. The gastrointestinal tract has an extensive lining of neurons, so extensive that it can be called our ‘second brain’. This second brain is known as the enteric nervous system and plays an important role in our mental state. It is made up of 100 million neurons, which allow us to perform the daily tasks of digestion (without having to consult the actual brain), however this task alone can’t account for the systems complexity.
The vagus nerve carries information from the gut to the brain and vice versa. These messages will affect your day to day emotional (and physical) well-being as a distressed intestine sends signals to the brain, and the troubled brain sends signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s distressed gut can be the cause of anxiety, stress, or depression.
More than 80% of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut and so it is little wonder that an inflamed and dysfunctional digestive tract will affect mood and mental clarity. Antidepressants, meant to increase serotonin levels in the brain, may actually cause symptoms of GI distress due to the increase of serotonin in the gut.
New research is now discovering that the trillions of ‘good’ bacteria in the gut communicate with enteric nervous system cells. This sheds light on the importance of ensuring a healthy balance of beneficial gut flora and correcting any dysbiosis with consumption of prebiotics and with probiotic supplementation.
Symptoms of digestive problems include: stomach bloating, nausea, flatulence/ wind, diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, allergies, heartburn, pain or aches in joints, itchiness, dizziness, brain fog, poor memory and attention, headaches/ migraines, skin problems such as rashes, eczema, and psoriasis, recurrent urinary tract infections, fatigue.
Factors that may have a negative impact on the GI tract:
- Food allergies/ intolerances may contribute to gut irritation and inflammation. Common intolerant/allergenic foods include: wheat/gluten, milk/dairy, corn, soy products, eggs, and nuts. ‘Leaky gut syndrome’ may be present if one is intolerant of many foods as the food particles are allowed into the blood stream without being properly digested, causing an immune reaction.
- Certain medications can cause digestive irritation, such as prolonged use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, oral contraceptives, antidepressants, cholesterol lowering drugs, chemotherapeutic drugs, diuretics and blood thinning drugs
- Stomach acid helps us to digest proteins and sterilize foods, therefore reducing exposure to pathogens. A low level of stomach acid can result in poor protein digestion and absorption, which robs us of amino acids important for hormone and neurotransmitter formation. Poor stomach acid is also linked to heartburn as food remains in the stomach undigested for too long and ferments, which produces gases that push up the GI tract. The use of antacids further exacerbates this problem.
- Dysbiosis is the term used to describe an imbalance in the gut bacteria. We need a certain amount of healthy bacteria to boost out immune system, defend us against pathogens, assist with digestion and synthesize vitamins. An imbalance in the gut flora can lead to digestive disturbances and is often associated with yeast overgrowth, intestinal microbes, diet, drugs and stress. Smokers, drinkers and illegal drug-takers are more likely to have depleted intestinal flora. A stool test will be able to identify dysbiosis.
- Parasites and other pathogens can disrupt the digestive and immune systems.
- Excessive, prolonged stress has a negative effect on the gut as the stress hormones lower the rate of digestion. Stress can also lead to increased consumption of sugar, coffee, alcohol and other refined foods, thus creating a vicious cycle.
- Poor quality drinking water often contains chlorine and fluoride, both of which are toxic to the ‘good’ intestinal flora.
Tips that may help to heal the GI tract and treat mental illness:
- Identify and avoid foods which you may be intolerant to with a food intolerance blood test.
- Avoid medications like NSAIDs, proton-pump inhibitors, antacids and antibiotics.
- Reduce stress levels with meditation, visualization and deep breathing.
- Get a stool test to identify the possibility of parasites, pathogens, and bacterial and yeast overgrowth.
- If pathogens/parasite/yeasts are present, eradicate them with NATURAL herbs.
- Supplement with digestive enzymes that have betaine hydrochloride for low stomach acid.
- Restore the healthy gut bacteria by consuming pre-biotics such as oats, bananas and artichokes.
- Re-inoculate the gut with pro-biotics from a high quality supplement.
- Consult with a nutritionist to help you to heal the gut lining using natural products like glutamine and aloe vera.
- Consume plenty of fatty fish and take fish oil supplements to benefit from the strong anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Consume more fiber in the form of whole grains, fruit and vegetables to ensure proper and regular bowel movements.
- Avoid non-organic, factory farmed meat which is full of the antibiotics that are given to the animals. Spend the extra money and get free-range, organic, grass-fed meat.
In years to come, the psychiatric world will begin treating the ‘second brain’ in the gastrointestinal tract, in addition to the mind.
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