Did you know that you have two brains? You have a brain and a GUT-brain. And if you want a happy brain, you have to have a happy gut!
The gut-brain has its own independent nervous system. And it has more neurotransmitters and serotonin than the brain in your head.
You all know that you can get butterflies in your stomach, or lose your lunch (or worse) in very stressful situations. But did you know that what happens in your gut feeds right back to your brain?
Studies show that an irritable bowel (which affects nearly 60 million Americans) can cause an irritable brain. It isn’t being anxious and irritable that messes up your stomach, it is your stomach that makes you anxious and irritable.
Did you know that a bloated belly can cause a bloated and inflamed brain? In this blog, I will teach you how your gut and your brain are connected—and why you need to heal your gut if you want to heal your brain.
Your Second Brain
Dr. Michael Gershon of Columbia University has called the gut the “second brain.” In fact, your gut has a mind of its own—literally. While it is connected to the brain through an extensive network of wiring and communication systems, it is also the only “organ” besides the brain that has its own nervous system.
We call it the ENS, or enteric (gut) nervous system, as opposed to the CNS, or central nervous system. This gut-brain actually comes from the same embryonic tissue as the brain-brain. And it is still connected via the autonomic nervous system—the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves.
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Acting completely independently, the ENS has a number of important jobs. It keeps everything moving in the right direction, from the top down, by coordinating the contraction of muscle cells. It triggers the gut hormones and enzymes to be released from cells to promote digestion.
It helps keep the blood flowing so when you absorb your food it can get to where it needs to go. And it controls the immune and inflammatory cells in the gut. (1)
All that happens in the background and is communicated back up to your brain via the autonomic nervous system. Think of it as two independent but interdependent businesses. They must coordinate and communicate but can also act independently.
Literally, everything that happens in your gut is communicated to your brain via the ENS. If your gut is stressed out, if it is inflamed, if it has too few probiotics, or if the protective barrier that lets food in and keeps toxins out has been breached, your gut tells your brain about it.
That makes your brain unhappy. So to have a happy brain, you have to have a happy gut. And one of the best ways to do that is to heal your gut-immune system.
The Gut-Immune System
Some 60 percent of your immune system lies right under the one-cell-layer-thick lining of your gut.
Its job is to let in ONLY the good stuff—food in the form of amino acids, sugars, fats, minerals and vitamins—and KEEP OUT all the bad stuff, like toxic bacteria and undigested food particles.
In fact, if you laid your gut flat, it would be the size of a tennis court. And there are 3 pounds of bacteria comprising 500 species covering that surface.
If this surface breaks down—look out. Your brain won’t be happy. Your immune system will get activated and start reacting to foods, toxins, and bugs in your gut. This makes your brain and your mood inflamed!
You can also absorb toxic molecules into your bloodstream, which get to the brain and make you crazy. Take, for example, the patients with liver failure who go crazy because they can’t detoxify the poisons from their gut bacteria.
And what’s our treatment? We sterilize their intestines with antibiotics.
The problem is that the way we live and all the drugs we take damage our whole gut ecosystem. This includes our sugar- and junk food rich, low-fiber diet, our overuse of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and acid-blocking medications, and our chronic stress.
So what happens when things go awry and our guts break down from the total load of stressors and toxins on our bodies?
We can develop everything from depression to ADD, from autism to Alzheimer’s, from OCD to anxiety—and just plain bad moods and brain fog. Let me tell you a remarkable story of a gut gone bad and how fixing the gut fixes the brain.
A Self-Intoxicating Little Girl
One spring afternoon a beautiful little six-year-old girl walked into my office with her mother and sister. On the surface, she seemed quite normal, but then the story of her tragic life unfolded.
This first-grade student was extraordinarily aggressive with her sister and her peers—kicking, pinching, and hitting them. She threatened to kill herself regularly.
Many studies have shown abnormal, toxin-producing flora in children with developmental problems like these. Normal kids have normal flora. Happy people have healthy flora!
She cut her mother and sister out of family pictures. She was anxious, negative, and hopeless. Temper tantrums, mood swings, and attention seeking were regular patterns of behavior.
She was also diagnosed with OCD and “perfectionism.” She didn’t make friends at school, and her mother was called daily about her disruptive behavior in class.
She had been a very colicky baby, had a frequent diaper and vaginal yeast infections as a child, with vaginal and rectal itching (which gives you a pretty strong idea that yeast is hanging around), and had very sensitive skin. And she loved sugar, refined pastries, and carbs.
Now, she had no digestive complaints, but I have learned that even if a child or adult doesn’t complain about their gut, mischief can still be brewing. The bacteria and yeast literally ferment the sugary, starchy foods in the diet, producing “auto-intoxication” with alcohol—a byproduct of this process. (2)
The violent, aggressive behavior so commonly seen in drunks can occur from alcohol produced by yeasts in the gut. I wondered if this little girl had a little auto-brewery in her belly.
On my detective hunt, I found she was low in magnesium, which can make you pretty irritable, and was deficient in zinc, which is so important to help your digestive enzymes break down your food.
She also had delayed food allergies (IgG) to wheat, rye, oats, and barley (all gluten-containing grains). And of course, she had low levels of DHA—the brain-balancing omega-3 fat.
She also had the typical problems with her methylation—evidence of severe vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folate deficiency. And she had a lot of trouble making enough energy in her cells, which you will learn about later in this series.
These problems occur in patterns because they are all connected. It is not usually one thing. It is almost always everything. But the gut is often at the center of the problem—even if there are no digestive symptoms.
The most incredible finding in this young girl’s case was the sky-high indicators of overgrowth of bacteria and yeast in her gut. I had never seen levels this high in anyone.
Just getting her on a gluten- and dairy-free, whole-foods, organic diet; some cod liver oil; magnesium; methylation helpers like B6, B12, and folate; a multivitamin; and some probiotics improved her condition. (3)
But when I gave her an antibiotic to clear out the bad bugs in her gut, (4) followed by an antifungal drug, she transformed into a well-behaved little girl.
Her aggressiveness, negativity, and hopelessness were gone. Her mother said she used to be punished ten times a day and got into trouble at school every day. All that stopped when we cleared up the bad bugs in her gut and helped her get her flora and gut ecosystem back in balance.
She was suffering from “auto-intoxication,” which led to crazy behavior. This process of a bug producing toxins that modify actual brain chemistry is just one way the gut can affect the brain. There are many more.
Many studies have shown abnormal, toxin-producing flora in children with developmental problems like these. Normal kids have normal flora.
Happy People Have Healthy Flora!
Dr. David Relman from Stanford is studying the DNA of the ecosystem of bugs in the gut. He has found the bugs who live with you in your gut may be more important in determining your health than your own DNA fingerprint. A healthy gut is a healthy brain!
So what do you do about it?
Be kind to your gut:
- Get rid of common allergens, like gluten and dairy.
- If you can, get off of antibiotics, steroids, anti-inflammatories, and acid-blocking medication.
- Try digestive enzymes.
- Try probiotics, which are the beneficial bacteria that normally live in your gut.
- Eat a whole-foods diet with plenty of fiber like beans, nuts, veggies, fruits, seeds, and whole grains.
And remember, if you want a happy brain you have to have a happy gut. I give you more details on how to make your gut and your brain happy in my book, The UltraMind Solution.
Now I’d like to hear from you …
- Have you noticed how your digestive problems affect your mood?
- What foods seem to worsen—and improve—your mood?
- What steps have you taken to help ease digestive problems?
Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
This article was republished with permission from drhyman.com.
1) Benarroch EE. Enteric nervous system: functional organization and neurologic implications. Neurology. 2007 Nov 13;69(20):1953-7. Review.
(2) Jansson-Nettelbladt E, Meurling S, Petrini B, Sjölin J. Endogenous ethanol fermentation in a child with short bowel syndrome. Acta Paediatr. 2006 Apr;95(4):502-4
(3) Kidd PM. Autism, an extreme challenge to integrative medicine. Part 2: medical management. Altern Med Rev. 2002 Dec;7(6):472-99. Review.
(4) Sandler RH, Finegold SM, Bolte ER, Buchanan CP, Maxwell AP, Väisänen ML, Nelson MN, Wexler HM. Short-term benefit from oral vancomycin treatment of regressive-onset autism. J Child Neurol. 2000 Jul;15(7):429-35.
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