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Sydney Naturopath Anxiety Depression

Training Your Brain For Gut Health – Is The Vagus Nerve The Missing Link In Resolving Chronic Digestive Disorders, Mental Health & Autoimmunity?

If you suffer from

  • Mental health conditions (Anxiety, Depression, Behavioural disorders such as ADHD)
  • Digestive disorders (Chronic Constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, Inflammatory Bowel Disease)
  • Autoimmune Diseases (Hashimotos Thyroiditis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis)

OR a combination of these…

It can be frustrating to feel like you are doing all of the ‘right’ things – you might be following a gluten free + dairy free/paleo/gluten-free/anti-inflammatory diet of sorts, ruled out or are treating IBS/infections/parasites, you’re taking probiotics, prebiotics, l-glutamine, digestive enzymes, bone broth, gut-healing powders and specific gut- nutrients (e.g zinc)…But you are STILL frustratingly suffering from gut symptoms and related conditions, and haven’t noticed a drastic improvement in your mental health and overall well-being.

Or you may feel much better taking these things but once you take them away you are immediately unwell. If this sounds like you, we may need to dive a bit deeper into the role of the gut-brain axis and in particular THE VAGUS NERVE, incorporating specific techniques to get your gut functioning strong and bowel movements happy, which in turn will drastically improve your mental health and help to dampen the inflammatory cascade of autoimmunity.

What Is the Brain-Gut Axis?

It is a pathway of communication that occurs via the vagus nerve and our gut microbiome.

Whilst we know much about the importance of our microbiome, aka our ‘beneficial gut flora,'(check out my blog article on prebiotics + sleep for more info) much less consideration is generally given to the other direction of this axis working ‘brain-down’, which is via the vagus nerve. Dr. Datis Kharrazian, who was awarded Researcher Of The Year in 2017 by the International Association of Functional Neurology, explains that “One of the most neglected things that I think most practitioner’s don’t understand, whether they’re conventional or alternative, is that there’s this brain-to-gut axis,”… and basically that what we may think of traditionally as gut-disorders are in fact neuro-degenerative diseases that start in the gut. The vagus nerve connects the brain with every other organ in the body, allowing the brain and the gut talk to each-other (they have quite an intimate relationship!)

This communication is “bi-directional,” meaning that communcation travels in both directions – the vagus nerve also carries information from the body back to the brain. Why is this so important for our digestion and overall health? Basically, the brain plays a crucial role in gut function as it controls gut motility (the movement of food through the intestines). When gut motility is impaired this means that your food is not moving and being broken down, nor can you make your own digestive enzymes, which will eventually result in fermentation and bacterial or yeast overgrowth.

Just taking digestive enzymes and gut-healing nutrients will not resolve the spectrum of underlying causes unless you address the brain-gut dysfunction – THE BRAIN is what makes us produce digestive enzymes in the first place and directs blood flow to the gut. One of the key things that would highlight an issue with the functioning of your vagus nerve is if you have issues with gut MOTILITY – i.e. if you have constipation, have to drink coffee to have a bowel movement, rely on magnesium or laxatives for bowel movements, if you have chronic & unresolved bloating…

If there is no gut motility or production of digestive enzymes due to dysfunction in the brain, this is what will will cause intestinal hyperpermeability (“leaky gut”) and then a range of downstream effects that drive chronic inflammation and an overactive immune system that can develop into an autoimmune condition – when they body starts to attack itself….so we may need to take a step back and approach chronic gut conditions from the brain down! This can not be done with a supplement – sure, they may help relieve symptoms, but it will not ultimately treat the underlying cause. In this case, we must develop plasticity and new neural connections so that:

-> Neurons fire into eachother -> Brain fires to the vagus nerve -> Vagus nerve fires into the gut nervous system -> migrating motor complex functions properly (which means gut motility will be functioning optimally)

Correcting an impairment in the brain-gut axis is so important, as many neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinsons & Alzheimer’s Disease have been linked to alterations in our gut microbiome and gut-brain axis.

One of the most common neuro-degenerative diseases, Parkinsons Disease, is referred to as an “alpha-synucleinopathy” – where a protein called alpha-synuclein builds up in between nerves which then can not communicate, and they begin degenerating off. The build-up of this protein leads to degenration which begins in two places:

1. The gut – people start to get gut degeneration

2. The olfactory bulb – people start losing their sense of smell.

The brain starts to degenerate, and since the majority of the brain’s output is at the pontine area where the vagus nerve lives, there is inevitably failure in the brain-gut axis at some point! Harnessing the vagus nerve should be a key treatment strategy for anyone predisposed or with an early diagnosis of any kind of neuro-degenerative diseases (including dementia). Alas, let’s get down to some of the key tools for firing up your vagus nerve and working from the brain down to ensure we are preventing and properly treating gut, mental health, autoimmune and neuro-degeneration!

GUIDE TO HARNESSING YOUR VAGUS NERVE:Dr. Kharrazian Has 3 Key Recommendations

1. Gargling – Take water, put it into the back of your throat and gargle to the point of tearing up. You must really work it out and gargle aggressively enough so that it makes your eyes tear, since the vagus is right next to an area called the superior salivatory nucleus, which causes you to tear. If this area of the brain isn’t functioning well you may have a hard time gargling, only being able to gargle for 3 or 4 second before having to spit it out. Build it up over time until you can do it for several minutes and you’re tearing consistently. This is how you activate it! Make this a daily routine. Gargling has been utilised in functional neurology for many years, e.g. people with head injuries.

2. Inducing Your Gag Reflex – Buy a box of tongue blades (can purchase online, e.g. through amazon), and use these to push down on the back of your tongue until you gag, which will make your eyes start to tear. Doing this activates the pathway, developing neural connections and getting plasticity going. Be careful not to push it on the back of your throat which could cause injury.

3. Coffee Enemas – NOT for ‘detox’ reasons, this tool is useful due to the caffeine which stimulates gastrointestinal nicotinic cholinergic receptors, which makes the gut move along. The key here is to get enough coffee so that you have to force yourself to SUPPRESS the urge to have a bowel movement – lay on your side and do the enema, and when you have an urge to have a bowel movement hang out there as long as you can, suppressing the urge. This fires the frontopontine vagal enteric axis.

Continually doing this builds endurance and starts to retrain the brain-gut axis. You want to ensure you are consuming a well-rounded, anti-inflammatory diet and taking digestive enzymes as well, as to not neglect the gut-brain pathway, whilst using the right techniques to training the brain-gut pathways. Singing is another fantastic remedy, which activates the vagal muscles in the back of your throat (you’ve got to sing loudly!)

And finally you must focus on utilising a range of lifestyle techniques, incorporating them into your schedule as they suit you, to ensure you are promoting your parasympathetic, “rest & digest” nervous system, to ensure optimal digestion & adequate blood flow to your digestive organs:

It might not seem like a typical ‘prescription,’ but please focus on incorporating these vagus nerve stimulating techniques if you have unresolved gut, autoimmune and mental health conditions (which may be overlapping), to ensure the brain-gut axis is working both ways!

Yours In Health

Steven Judge
Sydney Naturopath & Nutritionist
(02) 9211-3811
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Sleep Prebiotics Sydney Naturopath

Improve Sleep & Reduce Stress With Prebiotics

Eastern traditions have proclaimed it for centuries – All disease begins in the gut.

Science continues to validate the importance of gut health and the microbiome for a range of conditions – autoimmunity, anxiety & depression, allergies, chronic fatigue, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease….

A recent study has suggested that the answer to correcting poor sleep may lie in ensuring we are consistently ‘feeding’ our beneficial gut flora – another win for the importance of gut health!

Published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, dietary prebiotics were found to improve non-REM sleep (restful & restorative) as well as REM sleep after a stressful event:

“These data are the first to show that a diet rich in prebiotics can modulate the sleep-wake cycle both before and after stress and induce stress-protective effects in diurnal physiology and the gut microbiota”

It’s important not confuse the more commonly known probiotics with Prebiotics:

  • Pro-biotics = ‘beneficial’ live micro-organisms – bacteria, yeast or fungi – found in certain foods & supplements, which are essential for maintaining good health and vitality

  • Pre-biotics = non-digestible fibres that selectively stimulate the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria

Probiotics are fantastic for boosting and modulating our immune function & gastrointestinal health, but it is a common misconception that probiotics stimulate the growth of our gut flora and colonise the gut.

Probiotics are transient and do not colonise in the gut. This is why it is important to consistently consume prebiotics as they fuel the growth of “good”bacteria, and hence are a key treatment strategy in treating conditions where chronic gut dysbiosis (microbial imbalance) needs to be addressed:

  • Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

  • Autoimmune Diseases

  • Coeliac disease

  • Candida overgrowth

  • Anxiety & Depression

  • Stress-Induced Insomnia

Research suggests that when our beneficial bacteria digest these fibres, they not only multiply, they also release metabolic byproducts that affect brain function – butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) that can protect the brain and enhance plasticity

Dietary & Supplemental Prebiotics

Bimuno Daily – was the supplement used in the study and contains the prebiotic galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS).

GOS is also extremely useful for taking 2 weeks prior and during overseas travel to prevent traveller’s diarrhoea and gastrointestinal infection, during and post-antibiotics and for boosting immune health (especially in children). Sensitive people with IBS and SIBO may react to GOS as it is gas-producing, so caution may be needed

Partially Hydrolized Guar Gum (PHGG) – this prebiotic is non-gas forming, and can be safely and easily taken by anyone including those with IBS and SIBO

PHGG is non-FODMAP, and is an extremely useful tool in healing chronic gut symptoms. It is a key treatment strategy for SIBO, IBS, & chronic gut dysbiosis

Dietary sources of prebiotic and prebiotic-like foods:

  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Beans
  • Beetroot
  • Green Tea
  • Brown Rice
  • Leeks
  • Artichoke
  • Raw potato starch
  • Cooked and then cooled potatoes
  • Raw Cashews
  • Raw oats
  • Garlic
  • Raw chicory root
  • Plantains

Quality sleep is so important for overall health and wellbeing, and up to 1/3 people experience insomnia

Whilst prebiotics are not a stand-alone treatment, it’s definetely proving to be a worthy addition for insomnia treatment. Majority of the clients I see at clinic in Surry Hills (Sydney) benefit from targeting their gut health for improving sleep, energy and mental health

Talk with your naturopath today!

A healthy gut = a healthy life!

Steven Judge
Sydney Naturopath

Wholistic Medical Centre (Surry Hills)

(02) 9211-3811
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