Disruption of the gut-brain axis is a common and often overlooked cause of both digestive and brain symptoms. Chronic digestive problems are often caused by poor nutrition, chronic imbalances of the microbiome (healthy gut bugs), and gut infections that send inflammatory signals to the brain. When in distress the brain also sends feedback to the digestive system, creating an inflammatory cycle.
Symptoms of a gut-brain axis in distress can vary depending on the person and their individual state of nervous system, immune, and hormone health. Here are some of the symptoms people with gut-brain axis disruption experience:
Inflammatory Brain Symptoms
- Fatigue (Especially when reading, driving, trying to focus)
- Poor Focus
- Brain Fog
- Poor performance at school or work
Chronic Digestive Symptoms
- Upset Stomach
- Gas or Bloating
- Constipation or Diarrhea
- Food Cravings
- Skin Problems (Acne, eczema, psoriasis)
- Poor sleep (Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep)
- Chronic Pain, Headaches, PMS
How Does The Gut Communicate With The Brain?
The gut communicates with the brain through three primary channels – the nervous system, immune system, and hormones. These systems are connected through cell signaling to act on and provide feedback to one another.
The Nervous System & Vagus Nerve Information Superhighway Connecting The Gut & Brain
The nervous system is deeply connected to your gut. In fact, the gut is often referred to as “the second brain,” because it has its own enteric nervous system that manages many functions independently of the brain.
In addition, microbes in the gut regulate inflammation and produce neuroactive substances including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. Inflammatory signals and neurotransmitters that alter brain function and mood are communicated from the gut to the brain via an information superhighway called the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve (which translates to wandering nerve) connects the brain to the gut and all of the organs in between (including the heart, liver, gallbladder, spleen, kidneys, and reproductive organs). A recent research breakthrough found that the gut transmits signals directly to the brainstem through the vagus nerve in a lightning fast process that takes mere milliseconds.
Your nervous system is fast acting and is the first to detect a disruption of your microbiome. This is why the first symptoms of an infection like food poisoning or traveler’s diarrhea are often a vague awareness of discomfort, feeling antisocial, and even anxious.
Inflammation & The Gut-Brain Axis
When the gut is inflamed due to poor diet, stress, dysbiosis (an imbalance of normal bacteria), or chronic gut infections (unhealthy bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites, or worms) both gut cells and microbes produce inflammatory signals called cytokines.
Cytokines trigger leaky gut and an inflammatory response that affects multiple body systems through your circulation and can also specifically trigger activation of the brain’s immune cells called microglia. When the immune system is triggered, your body goes to work destroying harmful pathogens, but the effects are broad and healthy tissue such as the gut lining can also be damaged.
When the inflammatory signal is strong enough, the gut reacts by purging the pathogen by inducing loose stools, diarrhea, or vomiting. But chronic, low grade infections often go undetected for months or years without triggering severe or obvious digestive symptoms and become an overlooked cause of many chronic inflammatory conditions including brain health problems like brain fog, anxiety, and depression as well as autoimmunity.
How Hormones Affect Gut & Brain Health
When the gut is inflamed and the brain gets the signal, the communication between the brain and our hormones called the HPA Axis (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis) kicks in and tries to regulate. In response to the stress of the neuroinflammation, the brain signals our adrenal glands to release cortisol (one of our body’s steroid-like hormones) to suppress inflammation.
This is a great short term solution that protects us from inflammatory chaos, but long term lowers the immune system’s guard which decreases our ability to fight off or suppress infections. Elevated cortisol is also often associated with anxiety and is a prime example of how inflammation in the gut, microbiome imbalance, and digestive pathogens can alter mood and cognition.
Natural Treatment For Healing Digestion & Brain Symptoms
The connection between the digestive system and brain is well established, but leveraging the connection to heal digestive problems and brain symptoms such as anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD, brain fog, and poor memory is often overlooked. As a result patients are often offered medications to treat symptoms as a first line therapy without addressing the underlying causes.
A natural, root cause approach to healing the gut-brain axis using nutrition and lifestyle medicine as well as thorough evaluation, testing, and treatment of the microbiome and potential nutrient deficiencies is a long term solution with many healthy side effects including optimizing immunity and hormone health.
Gut & Brain Healing Lifestyle Tips To Accelerate Your Healing Journey
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet and focus on gut healing foods like organic vegetables, fermented foods, and bone broth.
- Eat a variety of foods daily to feed a diverse species of gut bacteria for optimal microbiome balance.
- Eat brain health foods like wild salmon, blueberries, broccoli, and leafy greens.
- Sit down and take 9 deep breaths to optimize digestion before you begin eating.
- Avoid stressful conversations at meal time and eating with people you don’t like (Seriously. Invite them to tea instead and order chamomile or peppermint.)
- Use a gratitude journal and engage in activities that bring you joy daily to reduce stress.
- Gargle, sing, and speak your truth to activate the vagus nerve (which is partially located in the front of your throat) to improve both digestion and brain health.
- Move your body daily and incorporate squats into your routine to improve circulation to your brain as well as leg strength which is a strong predictor for maintaining a healthy brain as you age.
- Work with a practitioner who will test your microbiome, screen for chronic infections, and help you optimize your digestion, immune, hormone, and brain health
Anderson S, Cryan J, Dinan T. The Psychobiotic Revolution: Mood, Food, and the New Science of the Gut-Brain Connection. Washington, DC: National Geographic Partners; 2017.
Kaelberer M, Buchanan K, Klein M, et al. A gut-brain neural circuit for nutrient sensory transduction. Science. 2018;361(6408):eaat5236. doi:10.1126/science.aat5236.
Steves C, Mehta M, Jackson S, Spector T. Kicking Back Cognitive Ageing: Leg Power Predicts Cognitive Ageing after Ten Years in Older Female Twins. Gerontology. 2016;62(2):138–149. doi:10.1159/000441029.
Dr. DeFrancesco partners with patients seeking a smarter & sustainable approach to health by doing the detective work to uncover root cause(s) and design a personalized and comprehensive plan that includes nutrition, lifestyle, functional medicine, and root cause therapies.
This approach benefits people who are seeking help with chronic inflammatory conditions, autoimmunity, thyroid conditions, digestive problems, brain health, and health optimization.