As of recent, the psychological implications of gut health, and the role of the microbiome in emotional well being has received more media attention. As we learn more about the way a healthy gut environment influences mood, immunity, and inflammatory responses, we can expect advances in the way a host of ailments — including depression and anxiety — are treated. For this reason, this week’s post is a guest blog by Andrew Farretta, a licensed acupuncture physician who specializes in the gut-brain connection.
It’s called the enteric nervous system, and like the parasympathetic nervous system, it works on its own. It regulates a host of activities that you never think about – digestion, hormone production, thyroid and adrenal production. And it produces 95% of the serotonin in your body.
And it’s not it your head. The enteric nervous system is in your gut.
While psychiatrists used to think that making you feel better started in your brain, medications – like SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) – were designed to work with the neurochemicals in your brain. What they are now understanding is that not only is almost all of the serotonin in your body produced in the gut, it’s also a one way street.
No longer do we think that it’s the brain regulating the gut. According Michael Gershan, chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, and an expert in the nascent field of neurogastroenterology, scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. “Some of that info is decidedly unpleasant,” Gershon says.
Michael Gershan, who is also author of the 1998 book The Second Brain (HarperCollins), continues, “The second brain contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system.”
Where does this leave us? And where does this leave psychiatry?
According to Emily Deans, a psychiatrist who specializes in the gut-brain connection, and more specifically, making the gut work better, and also pens the popular blog, evolutionarypsychiatry, “The gut and brain have a steady ability to communicate via the nervous system, hormones and the immune system. Some of the microbiome can release neurotransmitters, just like our own neurons do, speaking to the brain in its own language via the vagus nerve.”
Deans is not alone, findings of a 2012 gut-brain study were presented at the Digestive Disease Week Conference in San Diego. According to study head, Kirsten Tillisch MD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, “By changing what’s going on inside of the gut, we hope we can change how the brain responds to the environment.”
The findings give promise for those who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders, as a common complaint of all these conditions is GI distress. For this reason, recent research has also looked into the role of probiotic supplementation with children who struggle with autism.
In a 2012 article in Evolutionary Psychiatry, Deans wrote, “There are an increasing number of reports that anomalies in the immune system may play a role in autism. This has been found at the molecular, pathological, and epidemiological level. Altered levels of immunoglobulins, cytokines and inflammatory markers have been identified in the serum, cerebral spinal fluid, and autopsy brain tissues of autistic patients. Gastrointestinal inflammation in autism as well as pathological evidence of neuroinflammation involving activation of brain microglia has been shown. An increase in head circumference in autistic children, a consistent finding in autism, may involve neuroinflammation.”
According to Deans, feeling better, for both autistic kids and everyone else, starts with controlling the neuroinflammation. And the way we do that, is by improving the health of our gut.
“Changing the diet will have immediate effects, with folks who eat highly refined diets having a different gut composition than those who eat more whole foods, fruits and vegetables,” Deans tells us. She also suggests probiotics. But here again, she cautions us to do our homework. Dairy based probiotics – like fermented yogurt, and Kefir – will only help as long as we take them. For a more long term effect, Deans says, we need to take soil-based probiotic formulations, or look more specifically for strains of bacteria that affect the brain or behavior, which are called psychobiotics.
When we think about feeling better, starting with the gut is not a bad place, as it holds promise for a host of other disease conditions including autoimmune diseases, arthritis, asthma, obesity, and mood disorders.
Andrew Farretta is an acupuncture physician and licensed massage therapist in South Florida. Focusing on keeping his clients informed of the latest research, and empowering them to improve wellness through a return to an ancestral diet and lifestyle, he utilizes acupuncture and other forms of natural medicine to prevent illness and return clients to the good health nature intends. For more information on Andrew, or his practice, visit, www.centerformassagetherapycoopercity.com or email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
The article was originally published on Psych Central.