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The Second Brain.
March 23, 2017
When people think of mental health and mood disorders, they usually think of imbalances in chemicals within the brain, namely neurotransmitters. However, what most don't realize is to what extent gut health plays a role in these, and other, issues.
The gut is intricately intertwined with the brain, and handles so much more throughout the body than simply digestion. This is why the gut has recently been given the name "the second brain" by scientists. They are still studying the extent of these connections, but they have already made some very interesting findings.
When we think of neurons, we, again, usually think of the brain. However, there are actually more neurons in the gut than in either the spinal cord or peripheral nervous system.
Another important fact is that the majority of the vagus nerve (a very important nerve which winds throughout the body), carries signals from the gut to the brain, and not the other way around. This is so profound that I will say it again: there are more messages traveling from our gut to our brain, than there are traveling from our brain to our gut.
Hopefully, you are beginning to see just how important gut health is to OVERALL health, including mental and emotional wellbeing (again, typically thought to be tied only to the brain).
When we think of depression, many immediately think of a lack of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain (which is why Dr's commonly prescribe SSRI's - selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors - common ones being Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft). But, again, there is a major link with neurotransmitters and the gut. Serotonin is manufactured by both the brain and the gut, with upward of 80-90% of all serotonin in the body being manufactured by and found in the gut.
This all begins to make sense when you start to look at some of our biochemistry and chemical processes. The building blocks of neurotransmitters are amino acids, enzymes, vitamins, and minerals.
As a simplistic example, the amino acid Tryptophan, found in high levels in some foods like poultry and whey, after some processing, combines with vitamin B6 (specifically the enzymatic form, P5P) to help create serotonin (bonus: serotonin converts to melatonin, your sleepy hormone. So, if you have insomnia, you may want to look further into supporting your neurotransmitters).
These chemical transformations of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals into neurotransmitters are also largely assisted by your beneficial gut bacteria.
This link between neurotransmitters, the brain, and the gut, explain why SSRI's are often prescribed for non gastrointestinal issues such as IBS. And, likewise, why gastrointestinal issues are a very common side effect when discontinuing SSRI's.
So, you understand just some of the important links between the gut and the brain. What to do about it? If you are suffering from mood or mental disorders, one of your priorities should be to examine your gut health.
-What are you eating? Clean up your diet and eliminate processed foods and sugars. Consider doing an elimination diet to determine how certain foods work with (or against) your body. More here.
-What are you NOT eating? Make sure you are including plenty of good, high quality protein (amino acids), produce (fruits and veggies), as well as good fats (super important for both brain and gut health) and fish oils, like a high quality cod liver oil.
-Work on gut microbe balance. Take a high quality probiotic, or even better, eat fermented foods such as homemade sauerkraut and kefir.
-If you don't have sufficient stomach acid (hint: most of us don't!), then you are not absorbing your food, including those lovely little amino's and b's, the building blocks of your neurotransmitters. Read more about stomach acid and digestion here.
-Look for good forms of B vitamins. There are whole food options like bee pollen or nutritional yeast (note: neither is a good source of b12), and liver powder (good source of b12). If you buy a b complex, do not get the cheap kind. You will likely just urinate it out. Look for a methylated b complex (meaning it is more bioavailable, or ready for your body to use).
-Get fresh air, plenty of natural light, and (light to moderate) exercise. Both your gut and brain like these things.
Despite what modern medicine has taught us, your body is not a series of isolated systems. Rather, it is one intricately connected system. What affects one part, affects the whole.
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