Last Saturday (23-08-2014) I was invited to give a talk on the importance of gut health, as well as the significance of the gut-brain connection. This topic is something near and dear to me, as I have studied, researched, and diligently worked to restore the integrity of my own gut health over the years. The first thing that I asked though is “When you think of the gut, what is it that you think of?”
Most people answered that the stomach was the first thing to come to mind, some thought of it in relation to the current attention on probiotics. It is perhaps, only in our very recent history, that gut health has become a mainstream topic of note, and one worth exploring the depth that is worthy of it, for it’s function, and therefore integrity of function, has more far-reaching effects than what most people realize.
Let’s begin by examining what the gut is exactly. The gut (also referred to as the Digestive System, and the GastroIntestinal Tract – G.I.T), begins at the teeth, mouth and oral mucosa (some people may also include the nasal cavity due to the olfactory receptors and ability that smell has to stimulate appetite and therefore digestion), continues on to comprise the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon (large intestine), rectum, and anus. It also includes the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.
The Enteric Nervous System, a vast integrated neural web (think Braaaaaainnnsss) supplies this 36 foot long G.I.T and works in conjunction with a wide array of hormones, and neurotransmitters to receive and respond to information being conveyed between our inner and outer environment. This is an important interface that we’ll further explore in relation to our emotional & mental health as affected by the integrity of the gut. So in this network, we also see the integration of the gut with the nervous system, and the endocrine system (also known as the glandular system – responsible for hormone production). As the gut is also heavily involved in elimination of waste products, there is a very intimate relationship with the lymphatic system. Already, we are beginning to see that there is an intricate connection between our gut and all other systems in our body. In fact, the gut has an affect on every system, organ, tissue, and cell in our body, either directly or indirectly. This connection not only then helps us to realize that we can never look at disfunction or disease (or in fact non-pathological states) in isolation, it also begins to lay out a very distinct and ingenious design. And this understanding enables us to approach healing in a much more logical and effective way. (Yep, I’m all about design. Trust me, if you look for it, it’s there.)
In the meantime, let’s look briefly at the basic function of our gut. The upper G.I.T (mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, liver, pancreas, upper large intestine) is all about digestion of food, and absorption of nutrients. These nutrients are then carried around the body via the blood stream for use by the individual organs, tissues, and cells – which then go through a similar process of digestion, absorption, utilization (assimilation), and elimination. Metabolic waste is produced as a result of the process of utilization of nutrients within the cells, and this ends up in the lymphatic system. The liver is also responsible for detoxification and processing of waste products and toxins. And so this brings us to the function of the lower G.I.T (large intestine), which is to eliminate waste in the form of stools. There is an indirect connection here (via the lymphatic system link) with the urinary system, which is also responsible for elimination. Many hormones, enzymes, and other chemical catalysts regulate these four processes. If there is any disruption or disfunction in any one of these four processes – either at the gut level, or in individual organs or cells, then problems will arise, and the body will employ different methods of repair or, if the disruption is prolonged, maintaining a balance. Oftentimes, this becomes a disease producing mechanism. But that is another subject for another time (see it IS all connected!).
On with the show! So now that we have a general understanding of what the gut is, it’s interaction with the rest of the body, and what it’s function is, it’s time to get into the really cool stuff (well I think so anyway).
The gut is the seat of the immune system.
It’s also the seat of our emotional and mental wellness.
Remember this. It will all begin to make sense.
When we are in the womb, our gut or gastrointestinal ‘tube’ is formed fairly early on in our development. As an integrated system, it continues to develop in the womb, and by the time we are born it’s a fairly sterile tube at that. However, when we are born, it still isn’t fully formed. Sure we have a discernable stomach, intestines, liver, and pancreas, but our gastro-intestinal tract (the ‘tube’) remains, purposefully, unsealed. The mucosa (the tissue that you feel lining your mouth, which lines your entire gastrointestinal tract) is perforated. (You may have heard of the term ‘Leaky Gut Syndrome’. This syndrome most often refers to the consequences of a Candida or opportunistic microbial overgrowth in the gut which results from an imbalance in the gut flora and can result in food intolerances and allergies caused by the yeast eating into the gut lining and allowing large foreign and undigested proteins from our food to enter straight into the bloodstream. The body sees this as a type of pathological attack and begins an immune defense thus creating the intolerance or sometimes more seriously (depending on other factors) ‘allergic response’ that is often seen as various skin conditions, headaches, mental fogginess, and general inflammatory digestive symptoms.)
In a newborn baby, the gut is deliberately designed to have not yet sealed, not because of an imbalance in gut flora but so that the baby’s gut can be colonized and the immune system and immune defense mechanism be established by the beneficial bacteria, antibodies, and immune cells that it receives en route through the birth canal (bacteria) and via it’s mother’s breast milk (in particular, the Colostrum, which is the initial milk produced and extremely rich in antibodies, and prebiotics which the new colony of bacteria feed on). The mother and baby are considered to be in a symbiotic relationship for at least the initial two, if not three years of life, and although the gut begins to seal naturally by the time the first teeth have appeared, the bacteria and the immune cells that the baby receives from it’s mother are recognized by the baby’s body. If a foreign protein (that is, one not recognized by the baby’s body) such as those given in animal-based infant formulas, or solid foods such as grains or animal products are introduced before this natural sealing occurs, then chances of allergy (including eczema, asthma, and chronic ear infections), intolerance, or general gut discomfort are more likely to occur. Indeed, the use of pharmaceuticals, either during the birth, in vaccinations (including the adjuvants such as derivations of mercury, aluminium, and formaldehyde), and antibiotics used to treat infections, can also greatly affect the integrity of the gut. More about food intolerances/ allergies/ and inflammation later.
What an incredible design! This is why the gut is the seat of the immune system. Some of you may then be wisely wondering, ‘what about caesarean born babies?’. Unfortunately, with a rising incidence in interventionist birth practices, the importance of this essential step in the process of human development has been overlooked, and so I no longer wonder at the state of childhood health and patterns of childhood asthma, eczema, behavioural issues, and mental health issues. It’s a sad truth, that babies born via c-section not only miss out on the initial colonization of gut flora via the birth canal, but many are also subjected to antibiotics, and separation from their mother. Many also miss out on the liquid gold of colostrum. (A small amount of bacteria is ingested from that living on the mother’s breast). This does not set people off to a very good start, and it can continue to affect us well into adulthood. We can, however, address this, and work toward restoring the gut integrity, and the balance of flora. And it’s never too late to start.
What then is the function of this ‘gut flora’?
Did you know that you have around 75 thousand TRILLION cells in your body that make you you? You also happen to play host to MORE micro-flora (bacteria, yeasts, fungi) than you have your own body cells. I believe the current figure is that 90% of our cells are bacterial, and the number of bacterial populations in the gut alone is estimated to be around 10⒕ Don’t let that creep you out, because they live so that you can survive. This is what the micro-flora in your gut do for you;
* Beneficially affects digestion (including appetite)
- Produce enzyme substrates for your liver to do the job that it needs to do (an enzyme substrate is a molecule that enables enzymes to do their job).
- Synthesize vitamin B12, and vitamin K.
- Helps to regulate blood sugar levels.
- Helps to regulate bowel function (60% of the bulk volume of your stools is bacteria)
- Helps to regulate and destroy pathogenic (nasty) bacteria. (Beneficially affects immune defenses)
- A recent theory has proposed that your white blood cells (leukocytes) and lymphocytes (a type of immune cell prolific in lymph fluid) are modified bacteria that you swallowed as baby coming through that birth canal.
- May have an anti-inflammatory action.
- Beneficially affects body composition.
- Beneficially affects cardiovascular health
- Beneficially affects endocrine function (specifically the HPA axis – more about this soon), and general cellular health.
- All of these benefits, including the affect on digestive regulation is independent from the following benefit;
- Communication between the micro-flora occurs via neurotransmitters and neuropeptides such as dopamine and serotonin (the calming, happy hormones!), which they also produce. This can have a beneficial affect on mental and emotional wellness, because these chemical messengers are the same as those chemical messengers that the brain uses.
This last point rather elegantly (if I do say so myself) leads us into the gut-brain connection. Ah, yes, FINALLY, the seat of our emotions, and Braaaaaaaiiiiiiinnnnnnnssss.
Remember how I mentioned the Enteric Nervous System? Yep, that’s the one. The vast electrical web that communicates the outside with the inside and vice versa. It communicates by neurotransmitters and neuropeptides – chemicals such as serotonin, and dopamine. As such, our gastro-intestinal tract is lined with numerous receptors that these neurotransmitters can dock into so their message can be taken to where it needs to go. Now this is super fascinating, because here we see the interconnection, the inseparable interplay, again in how the body is designed to work. Gut bacteria also generate neuro-active metabolites that can be absorbed and distributed to the Central Nervous System (Brain and spine), where they indirectly affect mood, emotions, and behaviour.
We’ve known for a while now that our emotional state has a seemingly unlimited affect on our digestive processes (have you ever been told not to eat when upset?), as well as the microbial populations in our gut (think Candida albicans overgrowth that is exacerbated by stress – which depresses the friendlier bifidobacteria and lactobacillii populations. For women this often manifests as Thrush.). New research is now showing that this a two way street, and the gut microbial populations, via their influence on the HPA axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis. Think the endocrine/hormonal system), actually has a significant influence on mood, stress management, and behaviour. According to Dr James Greenblatt, MD the gut bacteria communicates with the brain via the limbic system (the limbic system is made up of various parts of the brain that is responsible for processing emotions related to stress response and mood). The Vagus nerve (which is the major nerve connecting the brain to the G.I.T, and stimulates such things as appetite and vomiting), the immune system, the endocrine system (specifically the HPA axis), and the neurotransmitters and neuropeptides that we have talked about previously all mediate communication between the gut microflora and the brain. Fascinating!
So with all of this in mind, you may be utterly overwhelmed, or you may now be wondering about how the mystery and seemingly alarming incidence of food intolerances fits into all of this. I think that when talking about the mental, emotional, and behavioural relationship to gut health, we do need to address food intolerances, sensitivities, allergies, and inflammatory immune responses because, unfortunately, nowadays most people in Western society will be suffering from some form of this and not really know it, or know what to do about it.
It’s important to note at this point that food intolerances aren’t the cause of gut dysbiosis (imbalance in gut flora), they are simply another symptom (as well as inflammation and ‘leaky gut’) of something bigger. Most often, gut issues (including food issues) arise from missing out on that solid foundation that we’re all entitled to at the beginning of life, however, environmental, dietary, and lifestyle influences can also be at the root of disfunction and be the trigger for a more insidious and chronic disease pattern to occur. The following is a list of the main culprits that contribute to diminished gut integrity, and in some cases lead to leaky gut and setting up that immune response which is responsible for food sensitivities (having said that, the most common food allergens are those foods that you should probably stay away from anyway – so it’s probably your body’s innate wisdom teaching you a lesson);
- Lack of fibre in the diet. Fibre is a pre-biotic. Meaning that it feeds the gut microflora. Bacteria need to eat too! Fibre also helps regulate our bowel function. If you’re constipated, you aren’t going to be eliminating toxins. This then sets up an inflammatory process in the body and can lead to all sorts of problems. Most processed foods such as bread and other white flour products are utterly devoid of fibre.
- Hybridized food. Since the 1970‘s, wheat has been bred to contain very high levels of gluten for it’s usefulness in baking. According to nutritionist Cyndi O’Meara, the wheat that is grown today for commerce, as a result of hybridization, bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to it’s original forebear. So much so that it cannot grow in the wild, but must depend on human aided fertilization and intervention for it’s survival. Gluten is a protein that the body cannot easily digest and contributes greatly to inflammation in the gut. Gluten and it’s related proteins may also bind to neurotransmitter receptors in the gut and act like an opioid (narcotic) in the body, which in itself sets up addiction, and has been linked to no less than 55 autoimmune conditions, including conditions associated with the Autism Spectrum. Hybridized grains such as wheat, are also higher in chemicals called phytates. Phytates are phosphorous based acids that the plant uses as antioxidants to protect it’s seed (in this case, cereal grain). Phytates in cereal grains bind to minerals such as iron and zinc, and can inhibit them from being absorbed in the gut. (Phytates can be disabled by soaking, sprouting or fermenting the grains before consumption).
- Genetically Modified/Engineered food. Research has now shown that animals fed on GM corn suffer from a shredding of the gut wall and therefore drastically compromised digestive function, which in turn has contributed to immune disfunction and tumour growth.
- Inflammatory foods. – yes, as we have seen with wheat, some foods do exert an inflammatory influence. Eg; Meat and dairy. Most commercial meat products come from cattle fed on grain, rather than grass (often GM grain), and is high in omega-6 and arachidonic acid which is pro-inflammatory. Beef as well as cow dairy contain 33x the amount of oestrogen than humans. The protein casein in dairy is not easily digested by humans (and has been linked to the development of breast cancer), and lactose can also cause an inflammatory response, not too mention contributes to excess production of mucous in the gut and respiratory system. The proteins in dairy also exert opioid activity, and this has been found to be why cheese is addictive for many people.
- Some foods promote a proliferation of certain opportunistic microbes in the gut. Wheat, refined sugar, and very starchy foods has this effect. The microbe Candida albacans is the usually suspected opportunity seeker. Candida naturally occurs in the gut, and it’s job is to help regulate blood sugar and glucose homeostasis in general. Contributing factors such as stress (which upsets the adrenal – pancreatic pathway of blood glucose metabolism), an under functioning or taxed liver, and a diet high in refined carbohydrates create an environment that this microbe proliferates in. As such it can get a little over zealous, and all the symptoms associated with Candida (eg: fogginess, forgetfulness, bloating, and leaky gut) can ensue.
- Environmental toxins, including pesticides, herbicides, fungicides. According to Dr David Blyweiss, since WW2 over 800,000 environmental toxins (including xenoestrogens -foreign oestrogens) have been introduced into the world.
- Pharmaceuticals such as the birth control pill, antibiotics, and chemotherapy drugs (to name a few – most pharmaceuticals will eventually have a detrimental affect on the gut, or the liver, or the kidneys).
- Heavy metals such as mercury, aluminium, cadmium, and lead. Found primarily in dental fillings, vaccines, and the water supply.
- Liver toxicity (mainly due to all of the above).
David J. Blyweiss MD notes that; “The most efficient clinical outcomes across all disease spectrum results from normalization of the GUT”.
How profound is that? Well, when you can understand how it’s all connected, how the design works, it’s easy to see how he could make this statement.
So I said earlier that we can address these issues and work to restore our gut integrity, and it’s never too late to start. For pregnant women who are planning to have an elective caesarean, or if you’re not but you’re finding ways to manage all possible outcomes in your birth plan, you can also never start too early. Yes, there is hope for all!
In Part Two, I’ll discuss strategies for nurturing the gut, for all stages of life. (including references, resources, and my own personal (Happy Gut Blend).