Did you know that the Gut or Digestive Tract is often referred to as the ‘second brain’, and that research has shown that dysfunction of the gut is often a significant cause of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses?
The health state of the Gut plays a pivotal role in overall energy, vitality and well-being, including our mood and behaviour. 70% of the happy hormone serotonin is produced by the entero-endocrine cells of the gut.
For years mental health has focused mainly on the brain, with mental disorders being regarded as exclusively brain disorders. Recent studies have shown that the gut microbiota has a huge impact on mental health via the Vagus nerve and the Gut-Brain Axis. Anxiety and depression as well as early onset dementia, Parkinson’s disease etc. are now understood to be associated with inflammation of the brain as a result of a compromised Blood-brain-barrier (BBB) and H-P-A axis dysfunction.
Gut-Brain-Axis Is the bidirectional communication pathway between the gut and the brain through neural, endocrine, immune and antibodies links. It connects the enteric nervous system within the gut to the central nervous system. Hence, the gut-microbiota and diet play an important role in the gut brain interaction.
The gut-brain axis, the relationship between the gastrointestinal tract and central nervous system, plays a vital role in overall health.
The gut–brain axis can be conceptualized as a bidirectional information superhighway that allows for the exchange of neurobehavioral information between the gut, brain, and even pancreas, liver, muscle tissue, and more. It has been found that gut–brain axis is essential to gut motility, gut secretion, gut permeability, gut immunity and gut microbiota… but also to overall health, energy and vitality.
Our gut and the gut microbiota (good gut bacteria) are responsible for vital functions within the body:
produced in the gut
Due to the lack/absence of lab technology in South Africa (Lancet, Ampath, Toga etc.), a diagnosis of Leaky or hyper-permeable Gut syndrome is not easy to confirm through pathology tests. Standard practicing GP’s and specialists who are not aware of leaky gut and its diverse symptomatology often don’t even think about it and miss it completely as a causative factor in many of the acute and chronic diseases prevalent in our world today. There is significant evidence linking COVID 19 infection and severity of associated symptoms, with Leaky Gut. (Leaky Gut + Leaky Lung)
As Functional Medicine practitioners, we treat the Gut before anything else as we recognise the health state of the gut as the inflammatory set point of the body. Leaky Gut = Leaky Brain = Leaky Lung + Leaky epithelial membranes throughout the body due to the systemic effect of the protein Zonulin as well as molecular mimicry (our next blog article on Auto-immune conditions will go into more detail on this).
Leaky Gut or a hyper-permeable gut wall is accompanied by inflammation of the digestive tract lining. If chronic or severe, a ‘balding’ of the absorptive villi of the gut. This results in micronutrient deficiencies as vitamin and mineral absorption through the gut wall (villi) and into the body via the blood stream Is reduced. This almost sounds counter-intuitive but happens as a result of bigger molecules, which shouldn’t be permeating, blocking the pathway of the smaller molecules like vitamins and trace minerals.
HOW CAN THE GUT AFFECT MOOD, BEHAVIOUR AND MENTAL HEALTH?
1.Toxins and inflammatory post-biotics from a dysfunctional gut are harmful substances that leak out into the circulatory system, causing low grade systemic inflammation, including inflammation of the protective layer of the brain called the BBB or Blood- Brain- Barrier. This leads to leaky brain or a compromised BBB that allows toxins to permeate the highly sensitive brain tissue. Recent studies have shown that there are increased inflammatory markers associated with anxiety and depression as well as other neurological degenerative conditions.
2. Deficiency of the amino acid Tryptophan.
During periods of intense stress, whether physical, emotional or psychological, the building block of the hormone serotonin called tryptophan is converted into kynurenic acid which has a neuro-protective effect by protecting the brain from harmful toxins.
If there is a deficiency of tryptophan, or if it continues to be utilised on this neuro-protective pathway for a long period, it will not be available for the formation of serotonin. A depletion of serotonin (an excitatory neurotransmitter responsible for stabilization of our mood, feeling of well-being and happiness) is seen in anxiety and depression.
3. Depletion of other micronutrients- Inflamed or leaky gut causes depletion of micronutrients, leading to neuro-chemical dysfunction, and systemic changes which is also associated with depressive disorders. In particular, the nutrients Vitamin B complex ( especially B1 and pantothenic acid), folate, magnesium and zinc are crucial for brain functioning.
There is no doubt that our brains have a high demand for energy (as much as the liver and muscular systems) and therefore it relies on a continuous nutritive supply of amino acids, lipids, vitamins, minerals, and trace elements obtained from a nutrient dense diet or alternatively from supplementation. Recent studies have shown that people suffering from schizophrenia often exhibit poor diet leading up to a symptomatic episode.
CAUSES OF LEAKY BRAIN
Eating a fibre rich, micronutrient dense diet, high in a ratio of omega 3:6, is by far the best thing you can do for your mental health.
Dietary approaches alter gut bacteria and gut metabolites (post-biotics). An adequate supply of micronutrients and macronutrients provide the foundation for microbiome health, minimize inflammation and support the efficacy of other psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological interventions. Some these supplements include:
Gluten is highly inflammatory and for the majority of people, one of the worst foods for the brain (and the gut):
It elevates zonulin which is a protein the body produces to increase epithelial barrier permeability.
Many studies confirm that gluten leads to the neuro-inflammation behind many psychiatric problems.
Gluten sensitivity can also result in negative changes to white matter in the brain associated with neurologic disorders such as multiple sclerosis (disabling disease of the brain and the spinal cord)
5.Avoid reactive and inflammatory foods
Inflammation from food sensitivities can cause leaky gut and disturbances to the blood-brain barrier.
Deep sleep is one of the most important factors for brain health. The brain shrinks to 66% of its size at night to allow the glymphatic system of the brain to increase in size in order to detoxify and remove harmful substances from the very sensitive brain tissue. Sleep deprivation is linked with impaired detoxification as well as compromised blood-brain barrier function.
A minimum of 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night is required.
Stress degrades the blood-brain barrier and can cause brain inflammation.
To manage stress, adopt a daily stress-reduction practice such as yoga, meditation, qi gong, deep breathing, laughter, play, forest bathing and daily exposure to sunshine and nature.
Alcohol can weaken and degrade the permeability of the gut lining as well as the blood-brain barrier. It also destroys the gut microbiome.
Caffeine can be protective against dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease by keeping the blood-brain barrier intact.
Because caffeine can disrupt sleep function it’s important to moderate caffeine consumption and make sure to consume it early in the day.
10.Avoid environmental mold
Environmental mold and mycotoxins reduce the integrity of the blood-brain barrier and cause neurologic damage. Constantly assess your home and work environment for any signs of damp or mold.
Mood and behavioural disorders are multifactorial conditions, requiring a multifactorial approach. With gut health now understood to be the new frontier in medicine, what a progressive world we will be living in when comes the day that psychiatrists and psychotherapists recognise the presence and causative nature of leaky gut, and then balance the gut-microbiota, reduce chronic inflammation, prescribe micronutrient supplementation and diet to address the nutritional deficiencies of mental disorders as well as to optimize the effects and reduce the side effects of pharmacological and psychotherapeutic treatment.
By Chantal Du Chenne, Functional Medicine and Lifestyle Practitioner , Founder of the DripBar and owner of a Kombucha brewery.
Chantal is a B.Sc.Hons allied health with an international certification in Functional & Lifestyle Medicine. Chantal is a passionate Gut Health advocate, specialising in the management of inflammatory conditions associated with leaky gut and dysbiosis (imbalance) of the gut microbiome. These include but are not limited to anxiety, depression, auto-immune conditions, cancer, type 2 diabetes etc.
Over her 25 year career, Chantal has held various positions within the health and wellness industry – including 10 years as the Executive Head of Vodacom’s corporate wellness & mobile health programs. Chantal is the owner/ founder of the DripBar which offers vitamin and mineral drip therapy in improving micronutrient deficiencies. She is also the founder/owner of a Kombucha brewery which produces the brand of ‘booch’ called theFarmacy.
Chantal is a competitive cyclist, a plant strong vegan and mom to two grown up girls.
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This blog post contains information that is not designed to take the place of,
substitute, or replace any form and method of professional or medical advice
and treatment or medicine. All content is the author’s opinion and is not
intended to diagnose and remedy. The facts and figures contained in this
document are presented solely for informational and educational purposes