The Gut-Brain Connection – How to improve gut health to reduce anxiety, depression, and improve your health.

by Kalpana Murthy, LPC

Anxiety, depression, ADD, and other forms of emotional and cognitive distress are not “all in your head” — they can also be in your gut.  The gut-brain connection is significant, and improving your gut health is an important part of an integrative therapy approach to reducing anxiety, depression, stress, fatigue and improving your health.

Your “gut” is the entire digestive track of your body. It’s the column that begins at the esophagus and ends at the anus. This track contains trillions of micro-organisms that are referred to as the gut microbiome. The microbiome is an ecosystem of healthy bacteria that not only manages digestion, but also influences neurotransmitter production, the immune system, hormone levels and metabolism.

What Is The Gut-Brain Connection?  Why Is The Gut Called The Second Brain?

While it was once thought that communication between the brain and the gut was just one way with the brain sending signals down to the gut, we now know that it’s bi-directional — the gut initiates and sends signals up to the brain as well. The gut contains its own independent system of nerves, known as the enteric nervous system, that communicate with the central nervous system via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the major axis or communication pathway creating a connection between the gut and brain. This gut-brain connection is the science behind “gut feelings”, “butterflies in your stomach” and the advice to “trust your gut”. The vagus nerve plays a critical role in our emotional response as it regulates whether we are in a restful, calm state or have a flight or fight response to situations.

The gut has been called theBrain-Gut-Cartoon second brain because the enteric nervous system in the gut can function independently of the brain, and it plays such an important role in the functioning of many systems of the body.

When your gut is healthy, you feel better. Unfortunately, many of the foods and medicines that people routinely consume disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut. This upsets the normal functioning of the gut and can lead to mental and physical health problems. Research studies involving mice show that when unhealthy bacteria was introduced into the gut of germ free mice there was an increase in anxiety and depression behaviors.

The good news is that by making wiser choices regarding what you consume, you may be able to restore gut health and treat a potentially significant root cause of anxiety, panic, depression, fatigue, stress response, cognitive decline, and physical illness.

Here’s a partial list of factors that can create adverse conditions in the gut:

  • Food and beverages containing gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, sugar, artificial sweeteners
  • Processed foods that contain preservatives, additives, artificial flavors, colors or other chemicals
  • Genetically modified foods, hydrogenated fats (trans-fats)
  • Meats that contain antibiotics, hormones, pesticide residue and preservatives
  • Antibiotics, antacids, aspirin, ibuprofen, other NSAIDS, birth control pills
  • Chronic stress

Serotonin in the Gut
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that helps us feel happy, calm and confident. It also helps with digestion. Approximately 95% of our serotonin is produced and stored in our gut, and there are more serotonin receptors in your gut than in your brain. If your gut is not healthy, then your body is not able to produce enough serotonin. This is one of the reasons someone can take anti-depressant medications and not notice a difference in their depression and anxiety. Those medications only work on the 5% of the serotonin that is in the brain. To improve your mood, you need to improve the health of your gut microbiome.

Immune System in the Gut
Another reason gut health is so important is because the gut houses approximately 80% of our immune system. If your gut is not healthy, you’re more likely to get colds, flu, infections, skin problems, joint pain, muscle aches, and diseases. Antibiotics taken to kill these infections further harm the gut, by killing off the good bacteria as well as the bad bacteria.

Stress and the Gut
Stress can also disrupt gut health. Stress sends a signal to the gut that the body is in danger and needs to hold on to body fat, so it has energy to fight off the danger. This is one of the reasons some people can reduce their calories, increase their exercise, make healthier food choices, and still hold on to weight particularly belly fat. Stress eating is not all in your head. When the body is under stress, the hormones that regulate appetite prompt you to eat more as the body thinks it needs more fuel to fight off danger.

In addition to making diet changes, stress reduction is an important step to restoring gut health. Counseling can help you make changes to reduce or better manage stress, and EMDR therapy can help reduce stress associated with traumatic or upsetting experiences.

Why Do Some Foods Compromise Gut Health?
Our bodies were not designed to tolerate many of the foods that are a part of the standard American diet (often referred to as SAD). Some foods create sensitivities or negative reactions in the body even if we do not have full-blown allergies to them. These foods can allow bad bacteria to grow in the gut forcing the body’s immune system to respond by attacking these bad bacteria in the same way it would attack a toxin or infection — and this produces inflammation.

Once the threat is gone, the inflammation subsides. However, if our diet constantly allows bad bacteria to grow in our gut, then the inflammation stays and can become chronic. This is a true crisis for our body and health as chronic inflammation alters many normal processes of body systems and leads to numerous health problems. For example, when we have chronic inflammation, our body is not able to properly absorb nutrients in our food, vitamins or other nutritional supplements. It also has a harder time utilizing compounds in medications. Poor food choices are just one of the factors that contribute to gut inflammation. Stress, drugs, environmental toxins and other conditions can also produce chronic inflammation.

Leaky Gut Syndrome
Gut inflammation can eventually contribute to a condition called leaky gut syndrome. This happens when a poor diet causes our overall state of gut health to deteriorate to the point that we start to have trouble digesting certain proteins and other foods. The ensuing irritation and inflammation damages the tight junctures of the gut and allows larger proteins to leak into the body. The immune system begins to identify these proteins as foreign invaders, thinking that they are bacteria or viruses, and attacks them. This leads to further inflammation which can create anxiety, depression, brain fog and fatigue. Many people have leaky gut syndrome and don’t even know it. You can have leaky gut without having any gastro-intestinal discomfort. A gut healthy diet can help restore the integrity of the gut wall and reverse these negative effects.

Steps to Restore Gut Health
There is no one diet that is right for everyone since everybody has their own biochemical individuality. That said, in general a gut healthy, brain healthy diet is one that is based on whole foods rather than processed foods, is mostly plant based, low in sugars, and free of gluten, soy, dairy, eggs, chemicals, and meats that contain antibiotics, preservatives, pesticide residue and hormones.

The following information is a partial list of steps from the book The Microbiome Diet – The Scientifically Proven Way to Restore Gut Health and Achieve Permanent Weight Loss by Raphael Kellman, MD.

  • Eliminate foods that create imbalance in the gut microbiome:
    • Dairy, gluten, soy, eggs, sugar including artificial sweeteners.
    • Refined carbohydrates and processed food that contain the ingredients listed above.
    • Foods that contain preservatives, additives, artificial flavors, colors or other chemicals.
    • Unhealthy fats: transfats, hydrogenated fats.
    • Meats that contains hormones and antibiotics.
    • Genetically Modified Foods (GMO)
  • Take probiotics to put more healthy bacteria in the gut. Probiotics have been found to reduce anxiety and depression. Probiotics are found in cultured, fermented foods such as: raw sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, kefir, yogurt (dairy free). If you don’t eat these foods on a daily basis, you can purchase probiotics as a supplement. It’s especially important to take probiotics during and after taking antibiotics, as antibiotics kill both the good and bad bacteria in the gut.
  • Take prebiotics to feed the existing healthy bacteria in the gut and repair the lining of the gut. Prebiotics are found in asparagus, carrots, garlic, onions, leeks, radishes, tomatoes, jicama, and are also available as supplements.
  • Take digestive enzymes to help your body absorb the nutrients in your food and convert food to energy. Avoid antacids as they reduce the hydrochloric acid needed for digestion.

Many people read this list and think, “What will I eat?” or “Does this mean I can never eat pizza, ice cream or eggs ever again?” or “Do I have to take these supplements for the rest of my life?” A gut healthy way of eating can include a variety of tasty foods that keep you full and satisfied. Kellman’s program for restoring gut health indicates that gut health can be restored in approximately four weeks with strict adherence to his guidelines, and then over time 10%-30% of your food choices can be some of the foods that you initially eliminated.

As you gradually add foods back in, it’s important to pay attention to how the food effects how you feel. You may find that you simply can’t tolerate some foods or that you no longer want some of the foods you eliminated. For more details, refer to The Microbiome Diet book or the many free resources available online regarding gut healthy foods and recipes. You can also find articles on probiotics, prebiotics and digestive enzymes online.

As with any diet or medication plan, it’s important that you take into account your personal health history and consult with a physician before making medication changes.

Make the Connection
As someone who follows a gut healthy diet, I understand the initial challenges and transition process. If you would like support around making these changes or on reducing the stress in your life, click here to learn about my Brain Health Coaching services or my Counseling services.