To everyone else, we naturopaths sound like we are obsessed with poop. Regardless of what you're coming to see us for, we always pull out our Bristol stool chart and ask a series of detailed questions about gut health. Why is this so important? Do we have a reason for asking you these things, or do we just, as a profession, have an odd sense of humour?
Gut Health Affects Brain Health
Conventional medicine tells us that "neuro is hard" (direct quote from a medical student I met while travelling in Europe), and still usually treats the nervous system as a separate entity from the rest of our bodies. However, trials have shown that anti-inflammatory probiotics can have positive effects on brain function. Volunteers taking probiotic mixtures, mostly Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species, enjoyed reduced depression and anxiety; lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol; and improved attention to positive emotional stimuli in relation to negativity. These are found in almost every commercially available probiotic. Some species of bacteria, such as Alistipes spp., are often over-represented in people with IBS, chronic fatigue and depression. Overpopulation of these species can be dealt with by probiotics, diet changes, or both.
One of the most common neurological issues is the autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which can range from mild, manageable symptoms to severe disability. Gut bacteria populations have once again been found to play a role, with research showing higher levels of Clostridium bacteria. Both higher and lower counts of Bacteroidetes can be seen in autism; the most appropriate response to these mixed results is to test and treat the patient as an individual. Other studies suggest overgrowth of bacteria, a problem also found in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). In fact, many children and adults with autism do have digestive symptoms, such as constipation or cramping.
Gut Health and Brain Regeneration
It has also been a commonly held belief (for too long!) that the brain cannot regenerate. However, new research not only suggests that it is possible, but that improving the gut bacteria can help. In mice with previously healthy gut bacteria populations, long-term antibiotic use impaired the ability of their brains to grow new cells, but this was restored with probiotics. Mice with no gut bacteria are sometimes found to grow more new brain cells, though this may be because of the absence of unhealthy species.
It Goes Both Ways...
If poor gut health is getting in the way of your life and health goals, don't stress! No, really! When we are stressed, our nervous systems shift into fight/flight mode, and this means reduced activity in the rest/digest centres and pathways. Insufficient digestion and absorption, as well as impaired muscle contraction, not only means that we don't get enough nutrients from food, but also that populations of gut bacteria can be thrown out of balance. If this sounds like you, and you are looking for professional support, contact me here or here.