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Optimizing the Gut-Brain-Heart Connection

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

Crisp autumn weather confines many of us indoors, resulting in our over-generous sharing of “bad” bacteria. Minding the “good” bacteria (probiotics) in your microbiome protects more than just the immune system. Learn how to optimize your gut, brain and heart health.

Gut The “gut” refers to the gastrointestinal tract, which is the tube that starts at your mouth and ends in… the toilet. Everything that happens in between, from moving food down your esophagus, breaking it down in your stomach, absorbing nutrients in your intestines, and packaging it to leave your body in the ever graceful form of poo, depends on the gut being a well-oiled machine.

Problems with digesting, absorbing, and eliminating food results in the accumulation of waste products, which causes intestinal inflammation. This inflammation is known as “leaky gut,” whereby undigested food proteins cross into the bloodstream, eventually resulting in inflammation in different parts of the body. Making sure your gut is working as it should is key for overall health; research is demonstrating the connections between the gut and diverse body systems, including the brain (Kowalski et al., 2019) and cardiovascular system (Noce et al., 2019). These connections are influenced by the microbiome, which is the collection of bacteria living in and on your body. Ensuring your microbiome has plenty of good bacteria to outbalance bad bacteria is key.

If you’re prone to bloating, gas, constipation and diarrhea, it may be worthwhile to seek the care of a Naturopathic Doctor to determine the root cause of your symptoms. It may be appropriate to use supplemental digestive enzymes with meals, particularly if you have low stomach acid. Stomach acid is required for enzymes to work properly, so look for a full-spectrum enzyme formula with betaine HCl (the composition of stomach acid). The use of proton pump inhibitors to reduce stomach acid in patients with heartburn has also been associated with dysbiosis, or a predominance of bad bacteria (Bruno et al., 2019). This highlights the importance of adequate stomach acid and digestive enzymes for proper digestion, thereby contributing to a healthy microbiome. You can tip the scale of your microbiome in favour of good bacteria by supplementing with probiotics, including strains such as L. acidophilus, B. longum and B. bifidum.

Eradicating infection, particularly by methicillin-resistant Staph. aureus (MRSA) bacteria, is also of prime importance for avoiding dysbiosis. Consulting with a Naturopathic Doctor about antimicrobial treatments fitting for your individual issue is key.

Brain Dysbiosis has been found to contribute to the development of depression and Alzheimer’s disease via oxidative stress (Luca et al., 2019). Oxidative stress refers to cell and tissue damage that results from an imbalance in harmful free radicals and protective antioxidants. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and sip on green tea to ensure you’re providing your gut and brain with sufficient antioxidants. A 2019 systematic review suggests that green tea intake can even reduce the risk of dementia, mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease (Kutani et al., 2019). If you’re not a fan of green tea, you can protect your memory by taking green tea extract in supplement form.

While bad bacteria can contribute to dementia and mental illness, good bacteria may be a viable solution. New research suggests that modulating the microbiome through food or probiotic supplementation may be therapeutic in Alzheimer’s disease (Kowalski et al., 2019). Eat plenty of fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and unsweetened yoghurt, or take your daily probiotic for your daily brain boost.

Heart Research shows that intestinal dysbiosis has been associated with adverse cardiovascular health outcomes, including atherosclerosis and heart failure (Kappel et al, 2019). Addressing your gut health with probiotics and eradicating lingering infections may also be beneficial for your heart health in the long run.

It may also be wise to manage comorbidities of cardiovascular disease, like diabetes and hypertension; in addition to restricting salt, exercising, and practising stress relief, there are helpful nutrients and supplements that your Naturopathic Doctor can prescribe for you. Certain strains of probiotics have also been shown to lower blood pressure in those with mild hypertension, and reduce blood glucose levels in those with diabetes mellitus (Noce et al., 2019).

When it’s time to refill your probiotics, it might be helpful to look for a formula that includes prebiotics, ideally from the natural source of chicory root. Prebiotics are fibrous compounds that probiotics require to thrive in the gastrointestinal tract. Prebiotics have also been shown to reduce inflammation and improve insulin resistance in women with type 2 diabetes (Noce et al., 2019), certainly supporting Greek physician Hippocrates’ theory that “all disease begins in the gut.”

Bear in mind, many folks don't do well with prebiotics (which also go by the name FOS), and this speaks to an underlying dysfunction in the gut that can be identified and resolved by working with an ND. Naturopathic testing can tells us how you're breaking down food, what types of bacteria are living in your gut, how you're absorbing nutrients, insufficiencies of pancreatic function, and underlying food sensitivities.

Originally written for Healthy Directions magazine.

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Bruno, G., Zaccari, P., Rocco, G., et al. Proton Pump Inhibitors and Dysbiosis: Current Knowledge and Aspects to be Clarified. World J Gastroenterol. 2019 Jun 14; 25(22):2706-2719. PMID: 31235994.

Dehkordi, F.R., Kamkhah, A.F. Antihypertensive effect of Nigella sativa seed extract in patients with mild hypertension. Fundam Clin Pharmacol. 2008 Aug;22(4):447-52. PMID: 18705755.

Hannan, A., Saleem, S., Chaudhary, S., et al. Anti-bacterial activity of Nigella sativa against clinical isolates of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus. J Ayub Med Coll Abbottabad. 2008; Jul-Sep;20(3)72-74. PMID: 19610522.

Kakutani, S., Watanabe, H., and Murayama, N. Green Tea Intake and Risks for Dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, Mild Cognitive Impairment, and Cognitive Impairment: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2019 May; 11(5): 1165. PMID: 31137655.

Kappel, B.A., Lehrke, M. Microbiome, diabetes, and heart: a novel link? 2019. May;44(3):223-230. PMID: 30847506.

Kowalski, K., and Mulak, A. Brain-Gut-Microbiota Axis in Alzheimer’s Disease. J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2019 Jan; 25(1): 48-60. PMID: 30646475

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