BY: CYNTHIA HENRICH, CONTRIBUTOR
The primary seat of insanity is generally in the region of the stomach and intestines.” - Philippe Pinel, 1807
Imagine for a moment that you find yourself in a strange room. Surrounding you are heaps of garbage which are oozing a rather disturbing toxic substance onto the floor that even the bugs are avoiding. And the bugs; hoards of bugs munching on some sticky, sugary stuff wedged into the nooks and crannies of the floor boards. There’s a cleaning lady frantically trying to mop up the mess, but it’s impossible to keep up. You’re starting to feel a bit nauseous and unable to focus. Out of the corner of your eye you notice a rather shady looking gang of people and notice the flash of a weapon here and there on their bodies. Your tend to really absorb the energy of your surroundings, so at this moment you are teetering between a soul-sucking depression and a massive breath-stealing anxiety attack. There were a couple of policeman patrolling a moment ago, you seem to remember, until you notice that they are tied up over in the corner. You suddenly have a flash of clarity and see that there are gaping holes in the walls and that you can escape through them. No sooner are you through the nearest breach, when you are assaulted, asked for your ID (which no one can decipher) and pinned to the ground. You are told that you have triggered a security alert and have been determined a threat to the community. And your nightmare is just beginning.
That’s what conditions are like in an imbalanced digestive system.
Your intestinal system is a complex environment that is truly the core of your health. What you eat is only a part of the picture. What you absorb and what you can produce and defend against are the other big parts of this puzzle. A healthy small intestine is lined with villi, small finger-like projections that if spread out over a surface would be equivalent to the area of a tennis court. These villi are responsible for absorbing what we consume, by letting nutrients seep into our bloodstream so the body can use them for energy.
Throughout our intestinal system, we have bacteria that function almost as an independent organism. This is known as our microbiota. Eating fermented foods and taking different probiotics can help to keep this system balanced and healthy. These bacteria fight for real estate on the lining of our intestines. This can get challenging, because the typical diet tends to feed the bad bacteria and give them the edge in the battle. The good guys prefer to eat non-sugary, green based foods, and the bad guys just want sugar and junk. Guess who usually wins the battle?
These microbiota are where the story gets very interesting. They help to regulate inflammation in our body by controlling certain inflammatory markers known as cytokines. Cytokines are like the special forces warriors that support the bad bacterial troops with flame throwers. They run the good guys out of town and invite over their friends… the yeast, viruses, fungal colonies and (if the party is really happening) the parasites get in the game. At this point, it’s the Animal Housefraternity party of epic proportions, and you know what that’s like to clean up. Our inflammation gets out of control, and the good bacteria cannot produce the neurotransmitters that are crucial for a calm and balanced mood and brain. So the holy war going on in our intestines is mirrored in our brain, which is literally so inflamed that it feels like it’s on fire.
Now that we’ve broken the proverbial windows and punched holes in the sheetrock of our intestines, food that is not properly digested is making its way into our bloodstream. This is known as a leaky gut and these undigested proteins are being coded as invaders by our immune system. The immune system now initiates an attack which is the basis of many of our autoimmune conditions. This is similar to my example earlier where you were trying to escape the room but security considered you a threat to the environment. You know that you’re a good guy, but no one recognizes you anymore.
The gut is the production and storage facility for approximately 90% of the neurotransmitters that enable our brains to perform with clarity. Some of the top offenders responsible for throwing our system out of balance are:
- chemically laced processed foods
- foods treated with pesticides and fertilizers
- genetically modified foods
- sugar and substances digested as sugar
- antibiotic usage
- unrecognized or ignored food allergies and intolerances
- hormonal imbalances
- resultant nutritional deficiencies
There is a relationship between certain neurotransmitters and our microbiota. Different strains can reduce anxiety, reduce inflammation in bowel conditions, like colitis, IBD and IBS, regulate those inflammatory cytokine warriors, and importantly regulate the neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. If we think of serotonin as being responsible for a happy mood, then we should think of dopamine as being in charge of the rush associated with risk taking. This risk taking could come in the form of gambling, risky sexual behavior, drinking, drug use; these behaviors wash your deprived brain in dopamine. Your brain then craves more dopamine because it is not getting it from a balanced gut system, and this leads to addictive behaviors to constantly provide the pleasure chemical of dopamine to your thirsty brain. Similarly, those feelings of being choked with emotion are due to a release of serotonin in our esophagus; the feeling of having to run to the bathroom is also due to a release of serotonin, but in our intestines (often why Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRI’s, are prescribed off label for constipation).
The key is achieving and maintaining the health and balance of your digestive system and the over one hundred million neurotransmitters that line its length, which incredibly is approximately the same number as in the brain. So when you have a gut feeling about something, it’s not just a saying – it’s the reality of your physiology.