The Gut Brain Connection: What is it and Why Does it Matter?

“All disease begins in the gut.” –Hippocrates

“Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.”  –Hippocrates

This is the first post in a series of posts my friend, Abby, and I will be writing on the Gut Brain Connection, its affect on our own families, and specific healing dietary suggestions.  But before we begin, we must answer the question, just what is the Gut Brain Connection, and why does it matter?

What Is The GBC and Why Does It Matter?

There has been a recent flurry of activity regarding the study of what is frequently called the Gut Brain Connection (GBC). Perhaps you have seen articles posting new study results. Perhaps you have heard of people implementing radical dietary changes in hopes of curing autism, depression, anxiety, and a host of other illnesses, both mental and physical. But the more this issue is researched, especially recently in the wake of what is now becoming an epidemic of autism and other learning disabilities and disorders, the more resoundingly clear the results are: A huge part of our health is directly related to the health of our gut. And much of our mental state has to do with what we are putting in our mouths.

How is the Gut Connected to the Brain?

The gut (our intestinal tract) is the huge tube-like structure that carries our food from our mouth to our stomachs. It engages in tireless work consisting of breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and eliminating waste. Our guts also contain neurotransmitters, some 100 million of them! that send signals to our brains. In fact, the gut has been coined the “second brain”.  Just like the brain in our heads, our “second brain” can by both functional and dysfunctional.  If our second brain is dysfunctional, it can result in a whole host of diseases and disorders, including autism, ADHD, allergies, mental illness (depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc), eczema, autoimmune disorders, IBS, OCD and many others.

How does this work?  This is where the GBC begins to get really interesting.

So What Goes Wrong?

Our gut is designed to be filled with all sorts of beneficial bacteria called flora.  The average adult should contain about five pounds of this bacteria! The flora provides a sort of wall of protection between the thin walls of our intestines and our bloodstream. But this “wall” can become eroded and leave our bodies susceptible to harmful toxins, chemicals, parasites, and undigested foods.  In the words of Dr. Natasha Campbell, author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome, “If the beneficial bacteria in the gut are damaged and are not functioning as they should, then the “walls of the city” are not protected very well…Without protection the gut wall is open to invasion by anything that comes along: a virus from vaccination or the environment, a ubiquitous fungus…various bacteria and parasites and toxic substances, all of which are very capable of damaging our digestive system and causing a chronic inflammation in its walls.” To make matters worse, when “gut flora is compromised, the lack of nourishment it would produce adds to the damage of the digestive wall” and further impairs the guts ability to digest and absorb nutrients.  The is a major reason why so many autistic children have digestive issues.  (This is also the reason why so many autistic, hyperactive, autoimmune people are unable to eat dairy and gluten products.  The gut does not contain the proper tools to digest these nutrients, and so they actually turn into a type of morphine and opiate in their systems. But more on that in future posts!)

Babies are born with sterile guts and acquire their beneficial bacteria through passing through the birth canal and through breastfeeding. Our guts are then continuously populated through diet and environmental factors.

Why Does All This Matter?

“On the whole it is hard to overestimate how important the state of our gut flora is in the appropriate functioning of our immune system.  It has been estimated that around 80-85% of our immunity is located in the gut wall.”  We can begin to clearly see how the health of our gut affects our overall health.  People with damaged guts also have compromised immunity to disease and infection.  This explains why these people catch every illness within ten miles of them.  They lack the protection they are meant to have to fend off pathogens.

But most importantly, when our “walls of defense” are compromised, they are easily breached.  So the food that we eat is not digested properly, resulting not only in malnutrition, but in toxins being released into the bloodstream and brain. Our diets can be full of nutrients, but if the gut is damaged, our body is unable to use them properly. And if our gut is damaged, toxins cannot be properly disposed of, resulting in a buildup of toxicity in a person’s system.

What Harms the Gut Flora?

Our flora is most put at risk when we are taking a prescription antibiotic of some form.  Antibiotics are designed to wipe out all bacteria, good and bad, from the gut.  This then leaves the gut unprotected from flora and open to a host of problems. This “bad flora” can then establish colonies that breed disease and infection because there was not enough beneficial flora to crowd them out.  This, in turn, releases toxins directly into the bloodstream, which affects the brain.  Antibiotics change bacteria, viruses, and fungi present in our guts from benign to pathogenic, giving them the ability to invade tissues and cause diseases.  When antibiotics first came on the market, doctors routinely recommended or prescribed a probiotic along with the antibiotic, recognizing the need to replenish the beneficial bacteria.  But as the years have passed, probiotics have fallen by the wayside, and antibiotics have become the “cure-all” and are even routinely given preventatively to humans and animals alike.  Antibiotics should always be a last resort, but are especially harmful to those who already has compromised gut flora.

Our gut flora is also damaged by other drugs, such as contraceptives, pain killers, and analgesics.  “The Pill” has a particularly devastating effect, since a baby inherits its gut flora from its mother.  If mom has been taking a contraceptive, her gut flora has already been damaged, so she then passes on her abnormal gut flora to her baby.  This can result in eczema, allergies, and other severe learning disabilities.

More recently, a connection has been made between laxatives, specifically Miralax, and damaged gut flora,  leading to severe disabilities such as autism, ADHD, allergies, etc.  If a woman habitually takes a laxative during pregnancy, her unborn baby’s gut is being compromised (this, we have recently learned, is one of the major reasons for our son’s gut damage, which I will detail in later posts).  Autistic children are now routinely prescribed laxatives on a long-term basis, due to their digestive issues.  Many doctors do not yet realize the catastrophic effect this is having on their already compromised patient.

Diet also plays a huge role in healthy gut flora.  “Too many sugary foods and processed carbs increase numbers of different fungi…Processed and sugary carbs also promote population of the gut with worms and other parasites. A diet high in fiber from grains has a profound negative effect on the gut flora.”  Breastfeeding populates the gut with balanced, healthy flora. A diet lacking in probiotic rich foods (as the modern western diet is) is one of the chief culprits of a damaged gut.

What Heals the Gut Flora?

Now we come to the fun part! A damaged gut can be healed! Many people suffering from the diseases and disorders mentioned above have seen dramatic decrease, if not complete reversal of symptoms as they begin to heal their gut.   By implementing a careful diet of nutrient dense foods that are easily digestible (bone broths, eggs, certain vegetables and meats), soothes the damaged gut and prepares it for healing.  Adding a host of probiotics (such as lacto-fermented foods) repopulates the gut with healthy flora.  And most importantly, avoiding the foods that cause more damage to the already damaged gut (sugar, starches, gluten, specifically).  These steps can heal and seal the gut, allowing symptoms to reverse and possibly heal altogether.

There are many forms of dietary suggestions to heal the gut.  In our research on this issue, Abby and I have become convinced that Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s approach to healing the gut is the most beneficial.  She has written extensively on the subject in her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, which I highly recommend. Be on the lookout for the next post in this series, where we will talk more specifically about Dr. Campbell-McBride’s GAPS diet and how it heals and seals the gut.

For more reading, here is the GAPS website and some recently published articles on the GBC:

The Gut Brain Connection-Harvard Health
Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being
Your Gut Bacteria Affects Your Brain, Study Confirms
Eat More Yogurt!


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Stephanie on October 14, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    I’m ready to lead a food revolution! Feeling so inspired 🙂


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