The Gut-Brain Connection: Gut healing has been at the forefront of the modern wellness world, and for good reasons. The gut is a significant player in many avenues of health, but it does not operate independently.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
The gut-brain connection is well-documented, and yet many people don’t target the brain aspect of gut health. Today we explore the brain, how healing the brain heals the gut, and the top ways to optimize brain health.
Why Gut Health Matters
The gut plays an integral role in generating overall health. The gut does much more than just facilitate digestion; much of the body’s immune system is located and developed from the gut. A healthy gut also communicates with the brain through nerves and hormones, enabling the body to operate correctly. When it comes to digesting food, the gut lining will also act as a barrier to entry, allowing the proper nutrients and keeping pathogens (like bacteria, fungus, or viruses) out 1.
The Gut-Brain Connection: The Gut as the Second Brain
The gut is often referred to as the ‘second brain’ because of its influence on how the body functions. The enteric nervous system (which contains all the intestines) relies on the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters found in the central nervous system (which includes the brain and spinal cord) 2.
There have been many links made directly between the brain and gut in terms of symptoms. It is well documented that stress has a direct impact on gut function 2-3. This cross-talk is opening up the field of healing and providing new ways to think about disease and healing.
Together, these “two brains” play a crucial role in specific diseases in our bodies and overall health. But like anything, when there is a new discovery, we tend to over-correct. The discovery of this ‘second brain’ has left many to put the real brain on the back burner, focusing entirely on the gut as a means to regain their health.
The Brain as the First Brain
Although the gut may be the second brain, we mustn’t forget that the brain itself is still the maestro of the body. The innate intelligence that the brain operates with controls the entire body via the central nervous system. The brain enables thoughts, memory, movement, and emotions through the nervous system by a complex function that is the highest product of biological evolution 4. Prioritizing a healthy brain during one’s life is the most crucial goal in pursuing health and longevity.
One of the central modulators between the gut-brain axis is the vagus nerve 5. The vagus nerve carries an extensive range of signals from the digestive system and organs to the brain and vice versa. It bypasses the spine and goes straight to the organs, including the gut.
This pathway plays a significant role in generating a sympathetic or parasympathetic state (whether you’re in fight and flight or rest and digest mode). It also influences how you digest and gut motility. What is being called vagus nerve toxicity is when this pathway is now essentially shut down due to brain toxicity 5.
Without getting this pathway back and running correctly, the body cannot detoxify, the gut functioning is impaired, there is chronic inflammation, and any progress you’ve made on your gut will eventually stall and then begin to worsen.
The Gut-Brain Connection: But My Brain Feels Fine?
The brain does not feel pain like the rest of the body because no nociceptors are located in the brain tissue itself. Studies explore various probings of the brain with no actual sensation in the brain itself, but rather showing up as referred pain in other parts of the body 6. Neurosurgeons can operate on brain tissue without causing a patient discomfort and can occasionally even perform surgery while the patient is awake 7.
Although it may seem like your digestive issues are more pressing because you are aware of them, the reality is that everything stems back to the brain.
Symptoms of Brain Toxicity (Neurotoxicity)
Neurotoxins are toxic chemicals that attack nerves and the nervous system, the most significant source being the brain. Some of the common toxins that lead to neurotoxicity are mercury, aluminum, VOCs (like benzene, toluene, and xylene), conventional household cleaner ingredients (like diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), and propylene glycol), phthalates (found in plastic) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) 8.
Symptoms of brain toxicity include: 9
- Mood swings
- Memory problems
- Brain fog
- Sleep disorders
- Psychological distress
- Changes in touch or sensation
- Coordination problems
- Digestive issues
- Pins and Needles feeling
As you can see, digestive issues and gut problems are but one of the many ways brain toxicity impairs the body. Going back to the source and fixing the root cause of toxicity will heal much more than just your gut 10.
Symptom Management Vs. Fixing the Root Cause
Many people think that whenever they engage with a holistic modality, that it is addressing the root cause. This simply is not true. When it comes to the gut, all these ‘healing diets’ like the kinds that ban nightshades, oxalates, or lectins: these diets don’t address the root cause; they simply treat the symptoms 10-11.
The goal should be to fix the problem, get to the root cause. When we look at this connection of the brain to the gut via the vagus nerve, we realize that if we’re not getting normal peristalsis– Yes, constipation’s a factor. Yes, SIBO’s a factor, but we only can improve that peristalsis by enhancing the brain connection to the gut. You’ll never fix the microbiome when your detox pathways are backed up, and if your body is continuously dumping toxins in the gut, how are you going to improve the microbiome?
Removing trigger foods from your diet to relieve pain is a great short-term solution, but without going deeper and healing toxicity, what’s the point? These crazy elimination diets help relieve symptoms, but they are not sustainable, and they will never get you your life back.
The Gut-Brain Connection: Should I Stop Working On the Gut All Together?
Although we have seen that the gut is downstream of the brain in terms of the ‘root cause’ of dysfunction, you should not necessarily abandon ship downstream. The goal is to clear the pathways from the source so that toxicity can flow out of the body altogether.
If the gut supplements you are currently taking are helping manage your symptoms, then there is no harm in continuing to support the gut directly. At the same time, you start to focus on brain detoxification. Avoiding trigger and inflammatory foods is also a good idea while you focus on the brain to add more inflammation to the mix 10.
Don’t get stuck in the probiotic trap, which is taking one strain of probiotics long term. This can lead to narrowing your microbiome because a probiotic supplement often overloads the gut with only a few strains when the gut should have tens of thousands of species 12. If you are taking a probiotic, rotate them regularly. When in doubt, opt for probiotic-rich foods like fermented foods (including sauerkraut or yogurt).
One of the easiest (and accessible) ways to boost your microbiome is to get outside! We take on good bacteria from the environment we spend time in, so spending time in nature is a great way to diversify your microbiome.
One other valuable thing to support the gut while also working upstream is consuming prebiotics. Prebiotics are the non-digestible fibers that feed your existing bacteria, often work better than probiotics 13. Prebiotic foods include chicory root, dandelion greens, jerusalem artichoke, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, and green bananas.
Getting Back to the Source
While you continue to nurture your gut, it’s now time to focus on the more significant issue: toxicity. Getting rid of toxins and reestablishing a healthy vagal connection back to the gut brings back the body’s innate intelligence. It can reduce inflammation 14. So instead of avoiding lectins and nightshades to manage symptoms, you’re going back to the source of the problem and letting the body heal in the way it knows how.
The 5R Approach to Detoxification
The 5R approach to detox targets toxicity all the way upstream to the source: the cell. Cellular detox is not a quick fix, and although many symptoms can and often do alleviate within the first few months, it’s essential to stick with the protocols for much longer to undo years of toxic build-up 15.
The 5R approach entails:
- Removing the Source
- Regenerating the Cell Membrane
- Restoring Cellular Energy
- Reducing Inflammation
- Reestablishing Methylation
Multi-Therapeutic, Multidimensional Healing
Although getting to the source of toxicity is paramount, it’s important to note that healing will always be multidimensional and therefore require a multi-therapeutic approach. We are all individuals, and our illness (and healing) story is physical, emotional, and spiritual.
There are so many tools out there, which is why working with a functional medicine practitioner is invaluable. Understanding the pillars of health can be done using the three-legged stool analogy that honors health as a product of managing:
- Stressors (Physical, Chemical, and Emotional)
- Gut/ Microbiome
- DNA bio-individuality
These pillars are supported by ancestral healing methods, including intermittent fasting, feast/ famine cycling, dietary variation, hot/ cold therapy, and exercise. There are many tools to fast-track healing and promote the body’s innate intelligence, including chiropractic-facilitated alignment of the upper cervical spine 16.
The Gut-Brain Connection: Summary
Although healing the gut is in vogue right now, it’s important to remember that this ‘second brain’ is downstream of the first brain: the brain itself. Although methods like elimination diets and probiotic supplementation often breed short-term success, they are more symptom-management tools. Getting back to the source of brain toxicity and specifically healing cellular toxicity will enable the body’s innate intelligence to restore not only the gut but many other bodily functions.
Healing toxicity on a cellular level requires a multi-therapeutic approach and various modalities to support the body. The 5R approach to detox can be paired with multiple ancestral healing methods like intermittent and more extended fasting, hot/ cold therapy, diet variation, and exercise. Managing all three legs of the ‘health stool’ is one way to keep on track with health and includes mindfulness around stress, the gut microbiome, and your bio-individual DNA needs.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based upon the opinions of Dr. Daniel Pompa. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Pompa and his associates. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD for accuracy of the information provided, but Dr. Pompa encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.
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