The Connection Between Our Brain and Our Digestive Tract (And Why It Really Matters)

Oh no you’re late!!!

You have 10 minutes to get to an important meeting with a boss who you have a tenuous relationship with. You jump in your car and attempt to make up some time.  Your thinking is sharper, vision is clearer and hearing is crisper.  Your pores dilate, your pulse becomes stronger and faster as you hurl down the highway.  You feel butterflies in your stomach as blood is diverted from your gut to your primitive (lizard) brain, which perceives the situation as a fight or flight moment.  We have all experienced similar situations. Is there any doubt that our brain has an impact on our body and gut?  Now imagine the stress of being in a bad relationship for years, or perhaps it’s years of financial hardship, and how these situations impact our gut.  The impact of our brain on our gut is well established, but the relationship is a two way street.

Our Evolution

Our central nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord and the enteric nervous system, a system of nerves that coordinates the function of the digestive tract, or our “second brain.” All of these nervous system components are actually created from the same fetal tissue. The vagus nerve forms the direct line of communication between the gut and the brain. As humans evolved, we developed complex sensory organs such as our ears, eyes, and nose to respond to our environment.  Our gut is also a complex sensory organ, responding to the outside world via the food that we eat.  Just as we are emotionally affected by the visual beauty that we see, the music that we hear and the savory aromas that we smell, we are similarly affected by the food that we eat.


Nutrients That Impact Gut Health

Nutrients impact the health of our gut, our brain and the communication between the two organs.  For example, B vitamins and folic acid are important co-factors in the production of neurotransmitters that are responsible for cellular signaling and communication. Deficiencies may predispose us to depression and may even cause a blunted response to antidepressant medications.  Essential fatty acids from fish oil provide structural support to nerve tissues, without which we are more predisposed to many mental conditions.  Chromium is a mineral that stabilizes symptoms of depression like carbohydrate cravings and increased appetite due to its impact on blood sugar regulation.  Antioxidants such as Vitamin C, Alpha Lipoic Acid and CoEnzyme Q 10 play a key role in the prevention and treatment of depression by protecting our brain and neurotransmitters.

The first line of defense among naturopathic physicians is to identify suspected nutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies through lab work or specialized cellular testing. Patients with memory loss, depression or poor sleep may actually suffer from insufficient nutrients. Organic GMO-free foods are strongly encouraged as they provide a higher concentration of nutrients.



Food is Medicine or Poison

Food can be our best medicine, but food can also be our poison. Reactions to food can cause inflammation and immediate symptoms such as cramping, bloating, and changes in their stool. Others experience delayed reactions such as fogginess, poor concentration, anxiety and depression.  Common reactive foods include corn, soy, wheat, dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish.   Proteins such as casein and gluten have been found to have opioid or morphine-like effects on the brain. It is believed that autistic children may feel dazed due to these morphine effects.


The Brain Gut Connection – What are you feeding your mind?

It is still unclear how casein and gluten proteins get to the brain.  The leaky gut theory suggests that the junctions that exist between cells in the gut become eroded.  These junctions normally hold the gut wall together and mediate the passage of large molecules like casein and gluten.  Once eroded, the wall can no longer act as a barrier against large molecules slipping into the bloodstream.

A recent study compared MRI images of celiac disease patients who experience balance disturbances, headaches and sensory loss against a control group. The cerebellum was significantly smaller in the celiac patients, and an astounding 36% of them had white matter abnormalities.  These findings demonstrate a significant correlation between the brain and the gut.

Plant pigments like quercetin and curcumin can be used to decrease reactivity and inflammation in the gut, while the amino acid glutamine and the hormone melatonin help to rebuild the gut. Maldigested foods, antibiotics, steroids, aspirin, heavy metals, components of vaccines, yeast and bacterial overgrowth will all increase the permeability of the intestinal wall causing an increased immune response and inflammation.


640_DigestiveSystemGood Bacteria

Bacteria and flora found in the digestive tract are essential to digest food, produce essential vitamins and process and eliminate chemicals and hormones.  The health of our bacteria can relate directly to how we feel. Gut bacteria can exert a beneficial effect on the brain by reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.  But an intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or dysbiosis, is implicated in conditions like IBS, poor sleep and depression.  Studies show that early in development, gut microbes affect the wiring of nerves in the stress system, influencing how our bodies react to stress for the rest of our life. The most effective way of assess dysbiosis is through stool sampling. There are specific herbs that control pathogenic bacteria, while probiotics can repopulate the gut with beneficial flora.


Chemicals in Our Brain: Is your food creating an imbalance? 

Some patients with brain related symptoms may require neurotransmitter testing.  Dopamine, glutamate, serotonin, norepinephrine, and nitric oxide are all neurotransmitters found in both the gut and brain.  There are also more than 30 different chemicals called neuropeptides at work.  Serotonin, for example, is key in contracting muscles of our digestive system but is also commonly considered a brain hormone because of its involvement in mood control, depression and aggression Interestingly, the highest concentrations of serotonin in our body are actually found in our gut.

Research has shown that dieters tend to become depressed and constipated about two weeks into a diet, right around the time when serotonin levels drop.  Low calorie diets can decrease serotonin production and receptors. Patients can supplement with a combination of amino acids and specific herbs to normalize neurotransmitter levels.

A basic principal of naturopathic medicine is treating the whole person. This makes naturopaths well suited to deal with a complicated body system like the gut brain axis. For example, we prescribe homeopathic remedies based on physical and emotional symptoms. The remedy Calcarea Carbonica treats patients who have difficulty assimilating information and demonstrate cautiousness, obstinacy, introversion, slow digestion and constipation.  Acupuncturists understand that the spleen and stomach are responsible for transforming water and food into energy.  When this process is out of sync, we may experience low energy, acid reflux, a weak immune system, and a tendency to worry, experience mental sluggishness, and obsess about the past.  Conversely, worry depletes energy from the spleen.


For more information about naturopathic medicine contact Dr.Christopher SaltPaw, ND, LAc at or check out Dr.Chris’ future blogs on Phenomenal Healthstyle



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