The Gut-Brain Relationship, Explained
“One only sees what one looks for, one only looks for what ones knows.” – Goethe
In our modern medical system, it’s easy to think about different organs and systems as separate entities. With so much knowledge out there on how various systems of the body works, it makes complete sense to separate each organ and bodily function into its own specialty. But that of course does not come without consequences. As new research emerges and as we continue to learn more about the body, it becomes more apparent that all organs and systems of the body are involved in a complex inter-relationship with themselves as well as the outside world. The connection between the gut and brain is certainly no exception.
When patients come to the clinic seeking support for mental health concerns, I am always inclined to ask them about their digestive health. Unsurprisingly, a vast majority of these patients also have significant gut dysfunction. Either they suffer from significant gas and bloating, heart burn, nonspecific abdominal pain, constipation and/or diarrhea. Rarely will a patient come in and not have a mental health concern coupled with gut dysfunction of some kind.
Why is this?
Because each person is unique, this is where individualized care comes in. Finding the root cause of the gut dysfunction can also lead to any potential root causes of the mental health concern. For example, long-term antibiotic, steroid or birth control use can disrupt healthy gut flora, which can lead to an overgrowth of potentially pathogenic bacteria, yeast and fungi in the gut. This then can lead to tissue changes in the gut lining at the cellular level, causing decreased nutrient breakdown and absorption, inflammation and toxic byproducts of certain food constituents. These toxic byproducts can cross through the gut lining and travel through the blood, where they can easily pass through the blood brain barrier and alter brain function. This alteration in brain function can manifest itself as anxiety, depression, brain fog and/or attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD), to name a few. The more commonly known neurotoxins include gluteomorphin, gliadorphin and casomorphin – with the first two deriving from gluten-containing foods and the latter from dairy products.
So should everyone with a mental health condition stop eating gluten and dairy-containing products? Not necessarily. The complex interplay between gut biodiversity, nutrient status and the health of our gut tissues can play a major role in whether or not someone will be neurologically affected by certain food constituents. However, for any person suffering from a mental health condition, the gut should be properly addressed. Finding the root cause of the concern can involve certain types of testing (including urine, stool and blood tests), dietary modifications as well as thoughtful consideration of appropriate probiotic and nutritional supplementation. Solving a mental health condition is never as simple as slapping a medication or supplement on it.
Campbell-McBride, N. (2010). Gut and Psychology Syndrome. Cambridge, UK: Medinform Publishing.