Many people tend to place different chronic illnesses in separate, tidy, little silos and look for cures in pill form. Have high blood pressure? There’s a pill for that. Feeling anxious and depressed? Pop a pill! If you find yourself stuck in this siloed mindset—while struggling with chronic illness, weight loss problems, allergies, insomnia, anxiety or depression symptoms—it’s not your fault. Western medicine philosophies taught us to think that way. In reality, God masterfully created numerous interconnected systems in the human body that were designed to work together to deliver optimum health. When these amazing systems get imbalanced or start misfiring, that’s typically when symptoms of poor physical and mental health arise. To get healthy, we need to find out what systems in the body are malfunctioning and why, then take reparative steps to help the body heal and regain balance.
Friends indeed: The brain, gut, immune system connection.
One of the most fascinating interconnected systems in the body is the powerhouse combination of the brain, gastrointestinal tract (gut) and immune system. Each miraculous in its own right, these three vital organ systems rely on each other to perform optimally.
A healthy metabolism also plays an integral role in how these three interconnected systems operate and communicate with each other. That’s because the metabolism involves vital chemical reactions in the body that:
- Convert energy in food to energy needed to run complex cellular processes in the body, which helps ensure the brain is firing on all cylinders.
- Convert food into the multi-faceted building blocks of proteins, lipids, nucleic acid and certain carbohydrates—nutrients our bodies need—that are produced when food is “processed” in a healthy gut.
- Help the body eliminate metabolic waste so we don’t get ill.
What happens when the brain, gut and immune system become imbalanced?
While the brain, gut and immune system serve different functions, when one of the systems isn’t functioning properly that imbalance directly affects the other systems. For example, poor gut health can lead to depression and anxiety and compromise the immune system at the same time. This is just one of thousands of examples of the powerful and vital connections these three systems share.
Let’s take a closer look at the brain, gut and immune system, what functions they perform and what leads to metabolic imbalances in each.
The brain, which is the command center of the body’s nervous system (all systems, really), consists of two types of cells (neurons and glial cells) that tap into glucose and oxygen in the blood to produce energy.
The brain serves as home base for the primary sensory organs (sight, taste, hearing, balance and smell) and also controls our cognition, memory, mood and emotions. When metabolism is out of whack, imbalances in the brain’s neurochemistry and other brain health issues can occur, from brain fog to depression to anxiety symptoms.
Brain metabolic imbalances can result due to: Chronic inflammation, imbalances in the digestive tract (gut), nutrient deficiencies (often due to poor gut health or diet), chronic stress, hormone imbalances (imbalanced thyroid, sex hormones or cortisol levels), as well as insulin resistance (diabetes), environmental toxins and medications, among other causes.
The gut runs from the opening in the throat where food enters the body all the way through the esophagus, stomach, intestines and rectum to the anus where waste is expelled. The gut is responsible for breaking down food, facilitating the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream and ushering toxins out of the body. In addition, sixty to 70% of the immune system resides in gut associated lymphatic tissue (GALT).
When the lining of the gut becomes compromised (leaky gut syndrome) or an imbalance of the good bacteria in the gut microbiome occurs (gut dysbiosis), dysfunction of numerous metabolic processes in the body and poor health can result. Poor gut health can cause nutrient deficiencies, food allergies, auto-immune disorders, digestive issues (gas, bloating, diarrhea, IBS), seasonal allergies, asthma and yeast infections. Research also revealed a link between poor gut health and mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
Gut metabolic imbalances can occur due to: poor diet (high in processed foods), excessive alcohol consumption, inflammation, environmental toxins, meds commonly known to give your stomach a hard time (NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen, antibiotics and steroids, among others), food allergies and chronic stress, to name a few. The immune system consists of individual cells and proteins, as well as specific organs and organ systems. These include the skin, mucous membranes (in the nose, throat, bladder and sex organs), tonsils, lymph nodes, thymus, spleen, bowel and bone marrow.
These cells, proteins and organ systems were designed to protect the body from foreign invaders, including harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, cancerous cells and others.
When our body is unable to fight off these invaders—due to a weakened immune system—everything from repeated colds and respiratory infections to chronic inflammation and disease states can result.
Immune system metabolic imbalances can occur due to: poor diet, chemical food additives (sweeteners, dyes, MSG and other flavorings), poor sleep quality, smoking, exposure to environmental toxins (heavy metals, pesticides, phthalates, BPA) and chronic stress, as well as conditions linked to chronic inflammation (sleep apnea, obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and food allergies among others).
MORE brain-gut-immune system commonalities …
Chronic stress, inflammation, poor diet, nutrient deficiencies and environmental toxins all wreak havoc on and create metabolic imbalances in these three interconnected systems (and that’s just for starters).
When you compound those triggers with the poor health and chronic diseases that result, along with our society’s reliance on traditional Western medicine treatments (there’s a pill for that!) that mask symptoms but don’t treat the root cause of illness—what do you get? People get sick and stay sick.
There has to be a better way … and there is! Identify what’s causing these metabolic imbalances, then tackle those triggers head on.
Let’s talk chronic stress and why you need to get a handle on it.
The link between chronic stress and poor physical and mental health is REAL.
Whether your life is spinning out of control and your blood pressure is rising due to job stress, relationship stress, family stress, college finals stress, money stressor and other forms of stress, chronic stress can and will affect your health.
When stress levels rise so do cortisol levels, which is fine in the short term because the hormone cortisol gives you the boost of energy you need to face challenging situations, by fueling the fight or flight response. It also helps regulate the immune system and fight inflammation.
Unfortunately, chronic stress is a whole big, bad and different story because it hampers communication between the brain, gut and immune system. According to American Psychological Association (APA), chronic stress can compromise communication between the immune system and another interconnected system, the HPA axis, a system which includes the hypothalamus, adrenal (the gland that produces cortisol, AKA the “stress hormone”) and pituitary glands. This miscommunication has been linked to physical and mental health issues including chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity, anxiety, depression and immune dysfunction. Research has also linked higher levels of stress-induced cortisol secretion with an increased likelihood of belly fat.
Stress also messes with gut-brain communication. Ever notice how your stomach responds when you get excited or anxious? Well, our interconnected friends the brain and gut are constantly communicating, so when you get stressed out and anxiety levels rise, both your brain and your gut know it. Feeling tired all the time and wondering “why can’t I sleep?” If you suffer from chronic stress and anxiety, your brain could be working overtime, which can significantly impact sleep quality and duration—another risk factor for poor health.
Not only can stress cause gut pain, discomfort and bloating, research also shows stress and depression can trigger changes in the gut bacteria, while at the same time, gut bacteria have the ability to modulate food cravings, stress reactivity and mood.
All of these interactions can influence immune function and health—the link between the gut, brain and immune system is truly that STRONG.
If you suffer from chronic stress, it’s critical to take proactive steps to manage stress levels. Your medical practitioner can provide insight on stress management tips and techniques or refer you to a mental health specialist if needed.
What we eat is a bigger deal than most people realize …
Let’s talk food, diet, weight loss and disease.
Simply put, your gut (and brain and immune system) will rebel if your diet primarily consists of highly processed foods, including refined sugars, processed carbs, like white flour and white rice, and saturated fats. Recent research shows, your diet—both independently and jointly, in conjunction with stress—plays a key role in shaping the gut microbiota. As discussed above and in our recent blog, Detoxing, Diets and Mental Health, an unhealthy, highly-processed diet can compromise gut permeability and gut dysbiosis and cause a whole host of leaky gut symptoms and health issues, including chronic inflammation, food allergies like gluten sensitivity, auto-immune disorders, depression and anxiety, just to name a few.
So, what’s the best diet to promote optimum health? For most people, we recommend an anti-inflammatory diet like the Mediterranean Diet. These diets include plenty of fresh vegetables (eat those leafy greens!), fruits, nuts, seeds, beans/legumes, potatoes, whole grains, herbs, spices, fish, seafood and extra virgin olive oil. Some versions of the Mediterranean Diet also allow you to eat moderate amounts of poultry and dairy products, and even grass-fed beef.
On the other hand, some people swear by high-protein, high-fat diets (like the Keto diet) for weight loss. Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Adele says she lost a significant amount of weight on a high-protein diet, and actress Rebel Wilson attributes her weight loss to lots of exercise and a high-protein diet, too. Though neither Adele nor Rebel Wilson specified which high-protein diet they followed, Keto diets have been a popular high-protein diet trend the past few years.
While high-protein diets like Keto diets may help you lose weight quickly and provide some health benefits at first, they do have downsides. They’re difficult to follow for the long-term, and studies have shown that diets high in protein and fat but low in fiber decrease levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
If you’ve read this far, you know the right balance of gut bacteria is essential for preventing poor health and disease.
Call Beyond Health today to make an appointment to discuss your personal health plan.