Why Your Gut Issues May be a Brain Problem

nutrition Dec 08, 2015

If you’ve been diagnosed with IBS or some other type of digestive condition, then chances are, you’ve been told by your doctor to reduce your stress; as if stress is causing all of your symptoms. Maybe you were even prescribed an antidepressant.

While this is very common in mainstream medicine, it’s also very frustrating because I know and you know it’s more complicated than that. However, there is something to be said about the role that stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other brain related conditions play in digestive health.

There is a significant connection between the gut and the brain. When one is suffering, the other is likely suffering as well. You may experience an imbalance in neurotransmitters leading to anxiety and depression. You may also experience an imbalance in hormones leading to adrenal dysregulation and other hormone-related issues.

The gut-brain connection has been very evident in my life over the past several years. When I started experiencing IBS symptoms in college, I also started experiencing a lot of anxiety, insomnia, and hormone imbalances. All the systems in the body work together, and when one system is damaged, others are affected.

Over the years, I’ve been on and off antidepressants. I was first prescribed one of these drugs right out of college, and I had no clue of the potential side effects. All I had a was a little anxiety, and the first line therapy from the doctor was a potent medication. I’m not against the use of these drugs; however, I do feel they are over-prescribed and sometimes carelessly prescribed.

It makes sense that an antidepressant would help with the symptoms of digestive problems because the majority of serotonin is produced in your gut. Serotonin is your ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter. If you’re gut isn’t functioning properly then you may not be producing adequate levels of this neurotransmitter.

At that point, you may experience depression, anxiety, bowel irregularity, insomnia, and other symptoms.

However, my personal preference, is to not be on this type of drug long-term. Plus, there are natural options that can help balance neurotransmitters. And the long-term solution would be to focus on healing the gut and the brain.

As mentioned earlier, you also have to consider how hormones are affected. We’ve all heard the term adrenal fatigue, which is a very common condition caused by chronic and/or traumatic stress.

The important thing to note is that adrenal fatigue is not a problem with the adrenal glands; it’s a brain problem. The clinical term for adrenal fatigue is HPA axis dysregulation. HPA stands for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. In other words, adrenal fatigue is a communication problem between the brain and the adrenal glands.

The adrenal glands are known for producing your stress hormone, cortisol, along with DHEA. These two hormones play a huge role in gut health. Cortisol is the main anti-inflammatory hormone in the body, and DHEA helps protect the immune system and is the precursor to your sex hormones. When the brain and adrenals aren’t communicating efficiently, cortisol and DHEA are thrown out of balance. This, in turn, will lead to additional hormone imbalances.

This disrupted communication between the brain and adrenal glands affects the production of cortisol, DHEA, sex hormones, and thyroid hormones. And, of course, this is directly linked to gut function.

To make matters even more confusing, imbalances in these hormones can affect neurotransmitter production. For instance, as a female, if you’re not producing enough estrogen, then your serotonin is likely to be low because the body needs estrogen for the conversion of amino acids into serotonin.

It’s truly no surprise that if you have chronic digestive issues, then you probably have adrenal fatigue, hormone imbalances, and neurotransmitter imbalances leading to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and/or fatigue.

The body is so intricately connected that you have to look at it as a whole; not just individual systems.

Now it’s true that some people can just remove an offending food or treat an infection, and they’re 100% better. But for others, that is not the case.

So what do you do?

In that situation, it may be helpful to consider brain health. That could include adrenal support and neurotransmitter support. It may also involve strengthening the vagus nerve through different exercises and driving down inflammation in the brain.

If you’ve lived with your stomach in knots because of low-serotonin worry or anxiety, it might help you to know that 90 percent of the serotonin in your body is not in your brain; it’s in your gut. When you raise your serotonin levels, your digestive tension (including constipation) can often dissolve along with your mental constriction.

Below are a few actions you can take now to start supporting your brain, adrenal, and gut health.

  1. brain4Diet – eat whole, real food such as clean animal protein, vegetables, fruit, nuts/seeds, and lots of healthy fats. A paleo diet is a great place to start. (The precursors needed to make neurotransmitters are found in amino acids from protein.)
  2. Sleep – make sure you’re getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night.
  3. Stress management – implement stress management activities each day such as yoga, deep breathing, journaling, prayer, meditation, epsom salt baths, and exercise.
  4. Support vagus nerve function – the vagus nerve coordinates communication between the brain and the gut. Learn about the vagus nerve and easy exercises to support vagus nerve function here.
  5. Adrenal support – get tested for adrenal fatigue and add in necessary supplementation and lifestyle changes. Learn more here.
  6. Support neurotransmitters – taking the precursors to serotonin, such as tryptophan, 5-HTP, and B6 has shown to be helpful in many cases. You may also need to support other neurotransmitters such as dopamine and GABA.

So, if your gut issues haven’t been resolved by cleaning up your diet, taking gut-healing supplements, and/or treating an infection, then you may talk to your doctor about supporting brain function using the suggestions above.

References:

Ross, Julia (2003-12-30). The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Take Charge of Your Emotions

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