Nathaniel Spock - June 26 2021
How Gut Health Impacts Overall Health and How It is Regulated
The gut was once considered simple in its bodily function, and for the longest time doctors dismissed gut problems as not serious concerns to our overall health. If you have had IBS and discussed it with doctors, you probably know what I mean. Recommendations of “eat more fiber”, “you have IBS”, is about as far as most doctors would go. The gut was thought to be a long tube stretching from the mouth to the anus, with the sole purpose of digesting our food and absorbing nutrients. Now the gut is a topic of high importance for researchers, as recent discoveries show the gut has demonstrated significant impacts to the immune system, our mood, mental health, the formation of autoimmune diseases, endocrine disorders, skin conditions, and even cancer.
We now know the gut has great impact on overall health. An extraordinarily complex system, the environment must be conducive to healthy bacterial populations for the body to achieve optimal health. When bad bacteria begin to over colonize, they begin to interfere with the signaling between the gut, brain and other organs and contribute to inflammation and signaling issues. These issues are thought to be the leading cause of disease.
The Gut Microbiome has a direct impact on brain health and cognitive performance. Recent studies show that bad bacteria within the gut microbiome can affect learning and memory in the brain.
Stress, Diet, and The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) impact and regulate gut health.
Extreme stress has been shown to deplete the gut of it's regulating power and redirect all energy to the brain to protect it. The Gut Brain Connection is the endocannabinoid system, which controls signaling between the microbiome and the brain, regulating its function.
Endocannabinoid Deficiency is thought to be the leading cause of IBS and phytocannabinoids may offer IBS sufferers relief.
The CB1 receptor of the endocannabinoid system seems to be the leading cause of IBS. Less CB1 receptors are available for binding with endogenous cannabinoids 2-AG or AEA. Phytocannabinoids can increase the production of 2-AG and AEA and may benefit a deficient ECS. Phytocannabinoids also act as a natural probiotic and have been shown to favor good bacteria.
The Gut Microbiome
The gut microbiome refers to the microorganisms living within your intestines. A person typically has 300 to 500 species of bacteria within their digestive tract. While we have been conditioned to think of bacteria as harmful to our health, many of these organisms are incredibly beneficial and ultimately necessary for a healthy body. According to a study conducted by Dr. E. M. Quigley the gut microbiota has 4 main homeostatic functions:
- Metabolic Role:
a. Produces short chain fatty acids from the friendly bacteria in the gut necessary to reduce risk of inflammatory diseases, obesity, and heart disease.
b. Glutamine an amino acid used in biosynthesis of proteins.
c. Synthesizes folic acid, which helps create red blood cells in the body, amongst other functions.
d. Synthesizes vitamin K which is important in healing wounds. e. Participates in drug metabolism.
- Deconjugation of Bile Acids: Eliminate cholesterol from body, emulsifying vitamins for absorption, aiding motility, and reduction of bacteria in the small intestine and biliary tract.
- Preventing the colonization of pathogens
- Immunologic Effects: Regulates T cells, and anti-inflammatory, and inflammatory cytokines, which are critical in immune response.
Clearly the gut plays a critical role in our overall health. However, new studies show just how critical gut health can be for brain health as well.
The Impacts of Poor Gut Microbiota Health
Another study on the gut microbiome showed how the foods we eat, specifically sugar has great impact on the bacterial population of the gut. This study used rats and was published in March 2021. Two groups of rats were created, one group (the placebo) only drank water, while the other group was allowed as many refills of a sugary drink as they wanted.
The study showed the rats that only consumed a high sugar diet had a specific bad bacteria thrive in the gut, which also starved good bacteria. The result had a direct impact on the mice’s cognition. The mice were tasked with escaping a maze, which required memory and learning. The mice with the high sugar diet ran around in circles and were unable to escape the maze. The researchers looked at their brains after the trial and found the hippocampus (responsible for learning and memory), was no longer functioning normal.
In conclusion, the change in bacterial population negatively affected cognitive brain function in rats that consumed a high sugar diet.
Not only do the makeup of bacterial colonies impact overall health but also their location. When bacteria are not where they should be, it can also cause problems. For example, when motility of the bowel is impaired and/or acid secretion from the stomach is reduced, an environment conducive to the proliferation of organisms in the small intestine occurs that are normally confined to the colon. Gastric motility describes the rhythmic contractions of the digestive tract called peristalsis. When someone has a gastric motility disorder, the contractions do not work the way they should, which can lead to problems. This results in a syndrome called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).
In other situations, damage to the intestinal epithelium renders the gut wall leaky and permits bacteria (in whole or in part) from the gut to gain access to the submucosal compartments or even to the systemic circulation, with the associated potential to cause catastrophic sepsis. This mechanism is thought to account for many of the infections that occur in critically ill patients in the intensive care unit, for example.
The Gut Brain Connection
Beyond its digestive functions, the gut is a key organ in the human body that is now often described as the “second brain” in your body. It is called this because of communication with all its neighbors (heart, lungs, stomach, etc.) and reporting on everything back to the brain. This axis of communication is called the gut-brain axis, and while research from the past decade have reported on its importance in our overall health, they never knew what system was responsible for this phenomenon. While scientists and researchers are still learning more every day, current evidence links the gut-brain axis activity to impacting mood, nervous system function, and even our sleep.
The Gut is the Second Brain
The brain and the gut work together as a team to keep our body at optimal health and do as much for basic functions as they do to survive extreme circumstances. For example, when the body is under high stress, anguish or sadness, the gut will actually allocate as much energy as possible to the brain. Typically, it depletes itself of food to have more energy for its partner in crime, which can result in stress vomiting.
This interaction has many doctors better understanding how stress can impact the body. Because the gut is sharing a significant portion of its energy with the brain, there is less energy left in the gut to monitor the types of bacteria allowed to grow there. This results in different bacteria (not necessarily good ones), to survive in the gut during moments of high stress. Many doctors now describe stress as “unhygienic” since it removes the gut’s ability to maintain a hygienic microbiome.
However, we now know the gut can do much more than simply respond to demands of the brain. An experiment conducted in 2011 showed that a group of mice were able to swim longer, performed better in learning and memory tests, and contained less blood stressors after being fed Lactobacillus rhamnosus, a bacteria known to be good for the gut. More evidence of this was recently shown in the study previously discussed on mice fed a sugary diet. The change in microbiome altered the hippocampus section of the brain, making the mice less effective at learning and memory cognition.
So how does this hold water in human studies? And can changes in our microbiome impact human performance like mouse models? The latest research says yes.
In a 30-day study, healthy volunteers with no previous depressive symptoms were given either probiotics or antidepressants. Those given probiotics showed reduced cortisol levels and improved self-reported psychological effects to a similar degree as participants administered Diazepam, a commonly used anti-anxiety medication. Another study found that probiotic therapy reduced depressive symptoms and improved HPA-axis functionality as well as Citalopram and Diazepam.
New Research Shows the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) Regulates the Microbiome
Some of the most regarded scientists like famed cannabis researcher Ethan Russo, now believe that the gut brain connection is the ECS. The enteric nervous system – sometimes called The Brain in the Gut – contains all the components of the ECS including CB1 and CB2 receptors, synthesizing and degrading enzymes, and endocannabinoids. The ECS regulates communication between the gut and the brain bi-directionally. This means that changes in the brain due to things like stress or pain can alter GI function and may be important in functional bowel health and health concerns like irritable bowel syndrome. Conversely, changes in the gut due to inflammation or infection are communicated back to the brain via the ECS. Deficiency of the ECS may be one reason that some chronic GI challenges can be hard to resolve.
The ECS seems to underpin the relationship between stress and visceral pain, inflammation, and alterations in motility. Chronic stress induces widespread changes to the ECS that include a decrease in AEA, an increase in 2-AG and reduction in the number of CB1 receptors. This corresponds with changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The result is a decrease in endocannabinoid-mediated analgesia and a lessened ability to dampen visceral pain signals. Decreased activity and number of CB1 receptors are likewise linked to increased intestinal motility, diarrhea, and nausea. This stress-induced ECS-HPA dysfunction, is thought to underlie the pathophysiology of irritable bowel syndrome at least partially.
The bi-directional impact of the ECS on gut and brain health is further shown in a study on Lactobacillus Acidophilus. Researchers were able to show that certain Lactobacillus strains stimulate the ECS through CB1 and CB2 receptors, further showing the ECS as the communication gateway between the microbiota within the gut and the brain.
Phytocannabinoids like CBD, THC, CBG May Be Beneficial for Gut Health and act as Natural Probiotic
When our body’s endocannabinoid system is not functioning properly, phytocannabinoids which also bind with the same receptors as our “internal endogenous cannabinoids” (CB1 and CB2 are the most common) can kick off the creation of 2-AG or AEA to restore balance in ECS function. If ECS function is restored, it reopens communication between the gut and brain allowing for rapid repair of brain and microbiome health.
While researchers are still learning the exact mechanisms that allow this interaction to occur, a recent study showed how phytocannabinoids stimulate the ECS, allowing for normal hygiene to take place within the microbiome and alter the distribution of good vs. bad bacteria (favoring good bacteria).
A June 2020 study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology, Nagrkatti and colleagues demonstrated that administering THC to mice affected with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) could stop the condition. A severe consequence of runaway immune response known as cytokine storms. ARDS occurs in a small percentage of COVID-19 patients, but it is often fatal.
They concluded that THC alters the microbiome in the gut in a way that is beneficial in suppressing inflammation because bacteria that are favored by THC seem to produce short-chain fatty acids that suppress inflammation.
“We have a mouse model of ARDS where we inject bacterial toxins into the mice, and they die within four to five days because of cytokine storms. We found if you give THC, it cures the mice. They are just running around and healthy. That was amazing.”
Repair Your Gut for Optimal Health
We now know more than ever that gut health can impact most parts of the body, especially the brain. It is essential to maintain good gut health to maintain optimal performance in one’s body. Gut health issues have even been linked to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and even bi-polar disorder. The good news is now that we know this the case, supplements and medicines that target the ECS and microbiome should be our first line of defense in repairing gut health.
This is exciting time for those who have struggled with gut health issues for far too long without improvement. We can now stimulate the systems responsible for a healthy gut and can not only improve gut health, but also brain health and overall performance as well.
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