Our digestive system and our brain have an intimate relationship. The gastrointestinal system is a long tube that is made of multiple muscles and neuronal networks, and possesses its own exocrine and immune system. Our brain is similar in the sense that it is filled with neuronal networks and possesses its own immune system (glial lymphatic system) and barrier ( blood-brain barrier). The communication between these two systems is called our gut-brain axis and it is bidirectional – meaning that our brain controls our gut and our gut communicates with our brain.
A lot of individuals with digestive problems such as bloating, chronic constipation, diarrhea and food reactions may also suffer from brain fog, memory difficulties, difficulty learning new tasks, migraines, joint pain, headaches and more. These are just a few examples of some of the symptoms that can indicate a dysfunction or loss of efficiency in the gut-brain axis. The brain has a major role in our gastrointestinal health and function by controlling gut motility, enzymatic breakdown and fuel delivery of macro and micronutrients into the bloodstream.
How does our brain do this?
Our brain communicates to our digestive system through our vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is our 10th cranial nerve and it is called the wanderer, because as it leaves the brain it wanders around our thoracic and abdominal cavity. This nerve’s composition is 20% motor and 80% sensory. Meaning that 20% of the information carried through the nerve is from our brain to our gut and 80% of the information is from our gut back to our brains. This means that our gut health is crucial for our brain health and our brain health is crucial for our gut function.
What happens when the gut-brain axis loses its efficiency?
When the gut-brain axis loses its efficiency, the vagus nerve loses its ability to activate the release of digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid (essential for digestion and prevention of bacteria/yeast overgrowth), reduction in motility and more.
Poor vagal activation can also lead to the development of “leaky gut.” Leaky gut is when the cells that line our intestinal tract begin to lose their integrity. These cells are packed very close together and are called tight junctions. They ensure absorption of our food and facilitate an optimal immune system. In leaky gut, these tight junctions become porous and enlarged. These enlarged pores cause improperly digested proteins from our food to cross from our digestive tract into our bloodstream. Because these proteins are not supposed to be in the bloodstream, the immune system recognizes them as foreign compounds and will try to get rid of them. This activates the immune system and causes systemic inflammation. This becomes a vicious cycle because the activation of the immune system causes inflammation, which promotes more of the tight junctions to become porous. This worsens the problems and promotes even more inflammation. This will also lead to vitamin and micronutrient deficiencies because the gut’s ability to absorb nutrients will decrease. This in turn causes decreases in the immune system, alterations in the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis and more.
How does the gut-brain axis lose its efficiency?
Gut-brain axis efficiency loss can be caused by brain trauma (concussions/TBI), co-infections (viral infections, lyme disease, epstein barr virus), emotional trauma, PTSD, extended use of steroids and antibiotics, chronic stress, lack of exercise, thyroid conditions, autoimmune diseases and more.
When the axis loses its efficiency, the digestive system becomes more susceptible to developing an overgrowth in yeast and bacteria and can create a gut dysbiosis.
Symptoms/conditions that can indicate a gut-brain axis dysfunction are:
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Skin conditions: acne, rashes
Digestive problems: bloating, chronic constipation/diarrhea
Headaches and/or migraines
A gut-brain axis dysfunction can be very frustrating and stressful for patients who suffer from these symptoms – mainly because of the cyclical relationship between the brain and the gut. It can feel like it is an endless cycle with no resolution.
At CFNC, we approach each patient holistically and comprehensively. We evaluate the integrity of our patients’ gut health as a part of our treatment approach. We do this by taking an extensive history, evaluating blood work and conducting other tests, such as saliva or stool testing, if necessary. We find success by evaluating and targeting both systems at the same time, to help break the cycle and restore optimal brain and gut health.
Everyone’s brain and gut are different. It is our job to figure out what your system needs. If you are suffering from any of the symptoms listed, or have any questions and would like to discuss more with one of our doctors, please contact us to schedule a consultation.