Last month I wrote an article about Jess Rath and her family and their journey to overcome health conditions using diet. To recap, Jess has 4 boys. Brayden her oldest, has an aggressive autoimmune, skin condition and the youngest William is autistic. This family chose to do what they could to treat both conditions primarily through nutrition and lifestyle and they have had astounding results. Their story emphasizes the role that gut health plays in the manifesting of many health conditions and today I’ll explore the concept of ‘gut health’ in further detail.
Let’s go all the way back to time in vitro (in the womb) because this is where the link begins. At about 5 weeks post conception(1) a clump of tissues called the neural crest form. From this same clump of tissues, two complex systems develop. They are our Central Nervous System (CNS), which are the brain and spinal system and our Enteric Nervous System (ENS), which controls our gastrointestinal function meaning digestion, bowel movements, absorption of nutrients etc. Cells called neurons, otherwise referred to as brain cells are generally thought of as residing in the brain and the spinal cord. However, neurons are also found in our gut within the ENS; around 100 million of them to be precise(2). These neurons act as a single system, in the same way that the brain operates, zapping messages and generating feelings.
KEY POINTS: the brain and the gut are formed from the same tissue mass in vitro. The ENS in the gut has lots of ‘brain cells’ – in fact, the ENS has more brain cells than the brain and spinal cord combined. Therefore the ENS is like your second brain.
Neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine are typically associated with the brain but these too can be found in the gut. In fact, over 90% of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut not the brain (2). Neurotransmitters have many functions, particularly concerning mood, sleep, concentration and focus. Specific and relevant examples include:
-Dopamine: the ‘focus’ neurotransmitter. Someone who consistently loses focus or trails off topic in conversation may have inadequate dopamine levels.
-Norepinephrine: is responsible for stimulatory processes. Therefore low levels are associated with decreased focus and energy whilst high levels may trigger anxiety.
-Epinephrine: another excitory neurotransmitter with elevated levels being associated with ADHD.
-Serotonin: required for stable mood and balancing nervous energy. Low levels are widely accepted as being associated with depression.
KEY POINTS: Depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive behaviours, low energy, poor focus, poor concentration and mental health concerns are symptoms that neurotransmitter levels may not be optimal. As these neurotransmitters reside in both the gut and the brain, optimal gut health is a critical long term strategy to rebalance neurotransmitters.
But what does a healthy gut environment actually look like? There are two factors to consider in this. The first factor to consider is the permeability of the gut wall otherwise known as intestinal permeability (IP). Increased IP is associated with the condition ‘leaky gut’ syndrome, which you may have heard of before. The gut lining consists of ‘tight junctions’ acting like gatekeepers between the digestive system and the general circulatory system. Tight junctions, when working optimally, permit the safe passage of nutrients out of the gut and into the bloodstream. However, if the gut wall is more permeable than it should be, other substances will ‘leak’ from the gut including undigested foods, larger proteins and bacteria. This material appears as foreign to the body and the immune system in turn creates antibodies to attack the leaked substances. In this way, previously harmless foods are now elevating the immune response and driving up inflammation. But how does this fit in with ‘autoimmunity, where the body begins to attack its own tissues? Still a topic for further research, however a reasonable theory proposed and well supported thus far indicates that the elevated antibodies (caused by the presence of foreign matter) find their way into various tissues and trigger an anti-inflammatory reaction, acting on its own body parts (4). For example, in Rheumatoid Arthritis the body’s own immune system attacks the joints causing aches and pains. In Urticarial Vasculitis (Brayden’s condition) positive C1q antibodies are present and the skin is one of the affected organs. I
KEY POINTS: A leaky gut is like a strainer with holes that are too big. Instead of only allowing the fine particles to pass, larger molecules are able to get through into the circulatory system. These molecules are foreign to the body so the body mounts an immune response creating antibodies that attack. These antibodies may find their way into the body’s own tissues and unleash their fury here. This is the case in autoimmune conditions. Therefore the integrity of the gut should be considered in order to determine the underlying cause. In Brayden’s case, gut healing was the key to managing his skin condition
The second factor to consider in looking at gut health is the bacterial population residing in the digestive system. Each of us has a different bacterial composition just like we all have a different genetic makeup. The bacterial population is an important consideration because:
-These bacteria are responsible for building the intestinal walls and repairing leaks in the barrier.
-They are responsible for synthesising specific nutrients (e.g. vitamin K)
-good bacteria are important to ‘crowd out’ the bad pathogens
-certain strains of bacteria provide a healthy and strong immune response
-specific bacterial imbalances are being linked with conditions such as Diabetes, obesity (5) and even Autism (6)
-overall, the environment of the gut needs to be optimal for proper functioning of the neurons, neurotransmitters, neuropeptides and the digestive system itself.
So the external structure of the gut as well as its internal contents are both critical considerations in a wide range of health conditions. Jess’s journey is an example of how nutritional and lifestyle choices have a huge impact on the outward expression of one’s internal state. Please keep in mind that these are complex topics, that I have attempted to explain as simply as possible in order to assist you to make choices that may benefit your own and your family’s health. I understand that this article is mainly background is really the ‘why’ behind the concept of ‘gut health’ and you may now be interested in the ‘how.’ Please stay tuned for the third and final article where we will discuss some of the simple actions you can take in order to optimize your own gut health.
- University of NSW, Neural Crest Development, available from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Neural_Crest_Development
- Scientific American, 2010 by A. Hadhazy, Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being, available from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/
- Campbell, A. 2014. US National Library of Medicine. Autoimmunity and the Gut http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4036413/
- Carnahan, J. (MD). 2014. Leaky Gut: The Syndrome Linked to Many Autoimmune Diseases, available from: http://www.jillcarnahan.com/2014/07/07/leaky-gut-syndrome-linked-many-autoimmune-diseases/
- Wallis, C. (2014) How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat or Thin, available from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-gut-bacteria-help-make-us-fat-and-thin/
- Moyer, M. (2014) Gut Bacteria May Play a Role in Autism, available from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-bacteria-may-play-a-role-in-autism/