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Alternative Medicine - - Quick Nutrition -

The Gut, Mi­cro­biome, and Brain: A Pow­er­ful Tri­an­gle

Some of the most ex­cit­ing re­search from the past few years shows re­mark­able con­nec­tions be­tween the gut, mi­cro­biome, and brain. The mi­cro­scopic crea­tures liv­ing in our in­testi­nal lin­ing pro­duce a num­ber of bio­chem­i­cal re­ac­tions that have a pro­found ef­fect on both our brain chem­istry and on the brain cells them­selves.

An im­bal­anced mi­cro­biome ac­ti­vates the im­mune sys­tem, which is ad­ja­cent to the mi­cro­biome in the gut wall. Mi­cro­bial im­bal­ance also fre­quently erodes the gut wall and leads to poor gut func­tion. The whole process re­sults in in­testi­nal per­me­abil­ity—aka leaky gut—a process by which par­tially di­gested food leaks through the gut wall and into the blood­stream. The im­mune sys­tem doesn't rec­og­nize food in this form, so it goes on alert, which cre­ates a con­stant, low-grade im­mune re­sponse. This is known as chronic in­flam­ma­tion, and it can lead to a num­ber of chronic dis­eases, in­clud­ing obe­sity, di­a­betes, heart dis­ease, au­toim­mune con­di­tions, and can­cer.

Mean­while, the ex­ces­sive im­mune re­ac­tion also af­fects the brain via the mi­croglia—spe­cial­ized im­mune cells found in the brain. In a healthy con­di­tion, the mi­croglia seek out dam­aged neu­rons and in­fec­tions and clear them from the brain.

But when the mi­cro­biome is im­bal­anced, the mi­croglia pro­duce cy­tokines, in­flam­ma­tory mes­sen­gers that can se­ri­ously dam­age the brain. As a re­sult, brain func­tion is al­tered. Anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion, and brain fog are the re­sult.

You can sig­nif­i­cantly turn this sit­u­a­tion around with the use of pro­bi­otics—pills, pow­ders, or cap­sules that con­tain bil­lions of healthy bac­te­ria. Pro­bi­otics help re­store bal­ance in your mi­cro­biome, while re­duc­ing in­flam­ma­tion through­out your body and brain; they are a sig­nif­i­cant part of my treat­ment of de­pressed, anx­ious, or “foggy” pa­tients. New re­search shows that pro­bi­otics raise your brain's level of IL-10, an anti-in­flam­ma­tory cy­tokine that helps fight off the in­flam­ma­tory type in or­der to pro­tect and sup­port your brain.

An­other sup­ple­ment that fights de­pres­sion is bu­tyrate, a type of acid pro­duced in the gut. A 2013 ar­ti­cle in Be­hav­ioral Phar­ma­col­ogy found that bu­tyrate can be very help­ful in med­i­cat­ing de­pres­sion—I've pre­scribed bu­tyrate for many of my pa­tients, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously work­ing to re­bal­ance their mi­cro­biome so that, even­tu­ally, the healthy and re­stored mi­cro­biome could pro­duce its own bu­tyrate.

In a 2013 placebo-con­trolled, dou­ble-blind study pub­lished in the jour­nal Gas­troen­terol­ogy, re­searchers ob­served the ef­fect of pro­bi­otics on brain func­tion. They gave the fe­male par­tic­i­pants a fer­mented milk drink three times a day; some women were given the drink plain, whereas oth­ers had drinks sup­ple­mented with ex­tra pro­bi­otics. When the women's brains were ex­am­ined via MRI, the probiotic group showed changes in the mid­brain re­gion—the area in­volved in emo­tional pro­cess­ing.

Sim­i­lar re­search was pub­lished in 2007 in the Euro­pean Jour­nal of Clin­i­cal Nu­tri­tion. In that study—also place­bo­con­trolled and dou­ble-blind—sub­jects who were given fer­mented milk with ex­tra pro­bi­otics re­ported sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved mood com­pared with the peo­ple who had just been given the milk. I've seen th­ese re­sults in my own pa­tients, who in­di­cate that pro­bi­otics and other mi­cro­biome sup­ports make them feel bet­ter with sur­pris­ing speed.

Bac­te­ria and Brain Chem­istry

The mi­cro­biome does af­fect the brain—but our bio­chem­istry is so com­plex that we are only just be­gin­ning to dis­cover some of the many types of gut-brain in­ter­ac­tion. The mi­cro­biome can al­le­vi­ate de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety in four key ways: Healthy bac­te­ria pro­duce key neu­ro­trans­mit­ters, the bio­chem­i­cals that ex­press mood. Sero­tonin, which cre­ates a sense of op­ti­mism, con­fi­dence, and well-be­ing, is pro­duced by gut bac­te­ria. So is gam­maaminobu­tyric acid (GABA), which cre­ates a sooth­ing sense of calm.

Bac­te­ria pro­duce a num­ber of bio­chem­i­cals that im­prove brain func­tion, mood, and men­tal vi­tal­ity.

Mi­crobes send mes­sages to the en­docrine sys­tem, sup­port­ing the HPA axis (hy­po­thal­a­mus, pi­tu­itary, and adrenals). This, in turn, mod­u­lates the body’s pro­duc­tion of cor­ti­sol and stress hor­mones, which pre­vents anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion.

A healthy mi­cro­biome trig­gers the im­mune sys­tem to send mes­sages to the brain, in­struct­ing it to de­crease anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion.

In­di­vid­ual stud­ies re­veal the pow­er­ful con­nec­tion be­tween mood and mi­cro­biome. In 2007, for ex­am­ple, Na­ture pub­lished an ar­ti­cle about Lac­to­bacil­lus aci­dophilus, a type of bac­te­ria found in yogurt, ke­fir (fer­mented milk), and many other fer­mented foods. This com­mon mi­crobe stim­u­lates the brain's opi­oid and cannabi­noid re­cep­tors—the very same re­cep­tors that are stim­u­lated by opi­ates (painkillers, heroin, and other drugs) and cannabis. So the next time you want a nat­u­ral high, reach for the yogurt—or bet­ter yet, the sauer­kraut!

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