Your gut, your microbiome (the trillions of bacteria in your colon), and your brain are closely connected through your vagus nerve. The gut-brain axis is basically an endless three-way call, with messages constantly going back and forth.
The vagus nerve is the carrier for all this essential communication. In Latin, the word “vagus” means wandering, an appropriate way to describe the path of this nerve. It starts in the back of your brain and runs all the way down to your colon. Along the way, it has branches that link to the larynx (voice box), esophagus, trachea (windpipe) lungs, heart, pancreas, and most of the digestive tract, including your liver.
Signals from the gut microbiome and from the gut itself travel up the vagus and tell the brain what’s going on down there; signals from the brain travel down the vagus and tell the gut what changes to make in response. For example, when the vagus nerve fibers within the gut detect inflammatory signals given off by the gut bacteria, they pass the message up to the brain. The brain responds by stimulating the production of anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters that regulate the immune system.
When the three-way communication is functioning well, the messages come through clearly. When the matrix is out of balance, however, health issues such as arthritis, diabetes, inflammatory bowel syndrome, food sensitivities, liver problems, inflammation, musculoskeletal disorders, and autoimmune diseases can arise. In the brain, neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease can develop, as can depression, brain fog and other mental issues.
What can disrupt the communications along the gut-brain axis and cause the biological equivalent of a dropped call? Anything that disrupts the gut metabolites—the chemical substances your gut bacteria produce—or the lining of the small intestine. In today’s toxic world, both are easily damaged.
The chief culprit for static on the gut-brain line of communication is the Standard American Diet (SAD), which loads the gut with highly processed foods that are low in fiber but high in chemical additives, sugar and bad fats. Other common culprits include antibiotics and other medications, alcohol, toxic environmental chemicals, such as glyphosate and pesticides, and that all-purpose gut destroyer, stress. Even healthy foods can be to blame if they contain gluten or lactose or are high in lectins (an indigestible protein found in beans and nightshade plants such as peppers). These foods and toxins damage the lining of the small intestine and kill beneficial bacteria. Unwanted toxins and food particles escape into the bloodstream through the leaks in the small intestine wall; they cause inflammation and other problems. Poor diet and toxins also damage the gut bacteria in the colon. That can lead to imbalances between the friendly and unfriendly bacteria, causing gas and bloating, diarrhea and constipation, and other digestive issues.
Restoring the balance
To restore good connections on the three-way gut-brain axis, consider my Super 7(R) Action Plan.
►Reset: The first action step is to reset your diet, lifestyle, and mindset. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet, one that is free of GPS: Gluten, processed foods, and sugar. Many people find that a modified Mediterranean diet that is free of GPS and DNA (dairy, nicotine, and artificial sweeteners), works well. In addition to the basic diet, adding 8 to 10 grams (two teaspoons) of MCT oil from coconut oil is very helpful. MCT oil has been shown to have antimicrobial and antifungal effects that can help restore a better balance of beneficial gut bacteria. Stress reduction techniques, such as meditation, mindfulness, and yoga are helpful and easily learned. What works best is highly individual, however. Whatever works best for you is helpful. Regular exercise is important (and also helpful for reducing stress). I recommend aiming for 10,000 steps a day in addition to daily resistance training and flexibility exercises.
►Remove: Remove foods that damage the gut, including processed foods, sugar, dairy and gluten. Also remove any foods related to your intolerances and allergies.
►Replace: You may need to replenish and replace your digestive enzymes A comprehensive enzyme complex supplement that includes amylase, papain, trypsin, and lipase helps promote healthy digestive function.
►Regenerate: The next step is to regenerate and repair the small intestine wall. The amino acid glutamine is key to this process. It supports the integrity of mucosal cells that line the small intestine and helps close any leaks.
►Re-inoculate: When the bacterial balance is disrupted, re-inoculating the gut with high-quality prebiotics and probiotics can help restore beneficial bacteria and crowd out harmful bacteria. Fiber is crucial to resetting the microbiome—it’s the fertilizer that makes a healthy microbiome flourish. Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), found in complex soluble fiber, act as prebiotics that nurture the growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon. Look for supplements of FOS powder containing inulin. For probiotics, look for a formulation that contains a range of beneficial bacteria, including Bifidobacterium lactis, B. longum, Lactobacillus salivarius, L. acidophilus, and L. rhamnosus.
►Reintroduce: When your symptoms are reduced or gone, foods removed earlier in the process can be gradually reintroduced—as long as they’re healthy. Continue to avoid GPS and DNA and fried foods.
►Retain: Retaining your gains is an ongoing process. Stick with your healthy diet, regular exercise program, and stress reduction.
Dr. Robert G. Silverman is a White Plains, N.Y.-based sports chiropractor and certified clinical nutritionist, specializing in functional medicine and the treatment of joint pain with innovative, science-based, nonsurgical approaches. He is also on the advisory board for the Functional Medicine University and a health contributor to various major TV networks. He is the author of Amazon’s Number One Best-Seller, Inside-Out Health. In 2015, he was honored with the prestigious Sports Chiropractor of the Year award by the ACA Sports Council. He can be reached by phone at (914) 287-6464, e-mail Info@DrRobertSilverman.com or visit DrRobertSilverman.com.