Gut-Brain Axis Dysfunction (G-BAD): What it is + 4 Tips to Help
You’re at the top of a roller coaster, inching your way towards an enormous drop, and your stomach does somersaults. You’re getting ready for a first date, and you almost feel sick to your stomach… Or maybe you’ve had a “gut feeling” about a shifty character you saw in talking to a friend…
We’ve all had these first-hand experiences showing us that our brain and stomachs are linked. But how does it work, and what else does it control?
This connection is known as the gut-brain axis (GBA), and researchers have found that it’s linked to both our mental and physical health.
But what happens when this communication system breaks down? This breakdown is known as G-BAD (gut-brain axis dysfunction). Symptoms of G-BAD include:
● Inability to lose weight
● Brain fog
● Low libido
In this complete guide on the GBA, we will help you understand what exactly the gut brain axis is, why G-Bad occurs, and outline 4 simple, science-based tips that you can use to fix this problem and regain your mental and physical health today.
What is the Gut-Brain Axis?
From trillions of microorganisms to a second brain, when it comes to how our bodies work, it doesn’t get much more interesting than the connection between our digestive tracts and our brains.
Also known as the microbiome-gut-brain axis, this bidirectional biochemical signalling process is made up of the following pieces:
● Gut Microflora
● Central Nervous System
● Enteric Nervous System
The simple explanation is this: Your Gut-Brain Axis is how your gut and brain talk to each other.
The GBA is composed of the central nervous system (CNS), which contains both your brain and spinal cord, your enteric nervous system (ENS), which contains hundreds of thousands of neurons inside your stomach and intestines, and your gut microflora, the multitude of microorganisms found inside your digestive tract.
When all of these pieces are working properly together, they help your body maintain homeostasis and health. Unfortunately, in Western countries, this is the exception rather than the rule. Gut-brain axis dysfunction (G-BAD) occurs when there is a breakdown in this system.
By understanding how these pieces work together, you can learn how to regain your gut health and ward off G-BAD to help you become a happier, healthier version of you.
What is Your Gut Microflora?
Each of our bodies act as the home for roughly tens of trillions of tiny microorganisms that are known as the human microbiome. (3)
This microbiome is defined as “the collective genomes of the microbes (composed of bacteria, bacteriophage, fungi, protozoa and viruses) that live inside and on the human body.” There are even more of these microbial cells inside of our bodies than human cells!
No person’s microbiome is identical to anyone else’s. In fact, it appears that there are more differences than similarities when comparing one person to another.
While these microorganisms live throughout the human body, the vast majority (by both number and diversity) are found in our digestive tracts, colloquially referred to as our guts (5). In particular, many of these microflora are found in our intestines.
It is our gut bacteria, also known as the microflora, flora, and microbiota, that scientists have been researching when it comes to the links between our human microbiome and our overall health.
Gut Microbiota: What do They Do?
Who are these tiny creatures and what exactly are they doing?
Over the course of human history, we have developed what is known as a mutualistic symbiotic relationship, meaning that our gut microflora help us to survive, and in turn, we help them.
This relationship is not unique to humans, other animals too have a complex community of tiny creatures living inside of them.
Until recently, however, we had very little understanding of how our gut flora were involved in our overall health. Thanks to extensive studies over the last decade, we’re beginning to understand much more about these beneficial gut flora.
The functions of the gut microbiota include:
● Aid in digestion
● Produce vitamins, including some B and K vitamins
● Play a role in the immune system
● Produce neuroactive molecules (neurotransmitters, hormones, etc.)
● Protect the intestinal mucosa from other microorganisms
Where Does Our Gut Flora Come From?
Our gastrointestinal (GI) microbiome is now considered an “organ,” thanks to all of the important roles it plays in the functioning of our bodies.
Interestingly, unlike traditional organs, this one is formed after birth. From the moment a baby comes into this world it encounters microorganisms that colonize the intestinal tract.
This colonization continues throughout our lives, however by three years children have a similar microbiota as adults.
It is mainly our diet and environment that determine how the community of microorganisms inside of our digestive tracts evolves.
When something happens to negatively impact this community of organisms, it is known as dysbiosis. When we talk about G-BAD, we are referring to health problems that arise from dysbiosis, or dysfunction, or our gut microbiota.
What is the Enteric Nervous System
The enteric nervous system (ENS), also known as the intrinsic nervous system, is commonly known as the “second brain” amongst the scientific community. In essence, the ENS is the brain for your digestive system.
This “second brain” is a mesh-like web of more than 500 million neurons spread over your digestive tract. The ENS works similarly to the brain, in that it contains neurons, neurotransmitters, and proteins that act together.
How Does the GBA Influence Health and Mood?
Scientists have long known that the brain influences gut health, but it took them decades to discover that the opposite is also true:
Our microbiota heavily influences our health and behavior, particularly when it comes to mood, energy, and weight.
Until the early 2000’s, it was assumed that the gut microflora was unable to impact our brains thanks to the protective membrane known as the blood-brain barrier. This barrier plays a crucial role in protecting our brain from outside influence, such as bacteria.
A 2004 study conducted in Japan found that mice exposed to certain microbes experienced an alteration in the levels of certain brain chemicals. What’s more, these same researchers discovered that the behavior of mice was also influenced by their exposure to microbes.
This was our first clue that this community of microorganisms in our intestines influenced both the chemistry or our brains and our behavior.
This relationship is so influential that millions of dollars are being funnelled into research that is taking a deeper look into understanding how it works and finding ways to use this connection to improve our daily lives.
Many animals and small human studies have now confirmed that the health of our microflora is intrinsically tied to our psychology, immune system, and health.
How Do the ENS and Brain Communicate
The central nervous system (CNS) is made up of the brain and the spinal cord. The vagus nerve connects the ENS and the CNS.
While the vagus nerve is thought by many to be the main way by which the brain and gut communicate, the immune system, tryptophan, and short-chain fatty acids also play a role. (3) Bidirectional communication along this axis helps to maintain hormonal, neural, and immune homeostasis in the body.
But how does the gut microbiome play into this?
It is believed that the microorganisms in your gut play an important part in the bidirectional signalling between these two systems. Your flora communicate with your enteric cells and produce hormones and neurotransmitters, impacting our brains, health, and behavior.
When this signalling becomes dysfunctional, both neurological and physical troubles can occur.
Now that there has been over one decade of research into this relationship, we are beginning to understand more about how the GBA impacts our physical and psychological health.
What Conditions Are Influenced by thy Gut-Brain Axis
This link between our intestinal flora and our psychology is of particular interest when it comes to potential treatments for depression and anxiety.
Other studies and theories support the involvement of this axis in (1,2,3,11):
● IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
● Leaky gut
● Digestive problems
● Cardiovascular disease
● Immune system dysfunction
● Skin health
● Chronic fatigue
● Metabolic syndrome
● Multiple sclerosis
Next we will explore what science has to say when it comes to how dysfunction of the GBA may be involved in the biggest health conditions of our time.
Gut Health and Depression
As of 2017, the World Health Organization estimates that over 350 million people in the world suffer from depression.
Recent studies have found a link between changes in the gastrointestinal microbiome and psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
In 2017 a systematic review was conducted to examine the effects of probiotic supplementation on human depression. In these studies, even though several different strategies were employed, the majority of studies found positive effects of probiotics on depressive symptoms, including mood, anxiety, and cognition. (10)
As the majority of depression medications available today target neurotransmitter activity and are plagued with unwanted side effects, the idea that depression may be treated with something as safe as probiotics is an exciting field of research.
Gut Health and Anxiety
We live in a high-stress world. Few of us haven’t asked ourselves, “how can we heal anxiety?”
Studies have found that stress impacts our gut microbiota, and that the gut microbiota can also influence stress.
One study found that healthy adults had fewer Lactobacilli in the stools when experiencing extreme stress when compared to those same adults when there were not experiencing high stress levels. (8) This study demonstrated that stress can change the microorganisms present in our digestive tracts.
Another human study found the opposite to hold true as well. (9) A 2016 study examined the effect of probiotic supplementation on both the psychological manifestations of stress as well as the biochemical features of stress. Both were found to be reduced when patients took probiotics prior to surgery.
Our Microbiota and Weight
Scientists have found that food choices influence what bacteria we have in our intestines, which in turn play a role in telling us what we need to eat. (6) This two-way street may be a key in why we tend to overeat certain foods and gain weight.
How do our gut flora tell us what we need to eat?
Certain flora in our digestive tracts appear to alert us as to what nutrients we are missing, and thus what food we should eat, and how much of that food we need.
In this study, researchers were able to control whether flies consumed a protein-rich meal or sugar-rich meal by simply altering their digestive microbiota.
This suggests that rather than a top-down communication about diet (your brain to your stomach), the opposite may hold true. It might be your gut, and largely your gut microflora, that are controlling your food cravings and telling you what to eat.
If you have ever had long periods of exceptionally healthy eating followed by long periods of unhealthy, sugary, processed foods, you may have noticed that what your body craves is completely different.
When eating healthily, eventually your body may tell you that you need a salad or an apple, but if you are eating fast food every day, your body will likely tell you that you are needing a cheeseburger or shake. One possible explanation is that by eating certain foods you are altering your gut microbiome, which in turn is changing how you crave food.
This could mean that you may be able to influence what you crave through what you eat and what supplements you take.
Our Microflora and Digestive Health
One of the effects of our gastrointestinal microorganism community that is the most obvious has to do with how it impacts our digestive health.
Dysfunction of the gut-brain axis has been found to be a contributing factor to leaky gut. (10) Psychological stress can lead to changes in our guts that can cause an increase in permeability of the gastrointestinal lining.
Intestinal permeability plays a role in many conditions, including:
● Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
● Food allergies
● Celiac disease
● Non-celiac gluten sensitivity
● Crohn’s disease
● Other inflammatory diseases
If, by changing the composition of our intestinal flora, we are able to reduce our response to psychological stress, it is possible that this reduction in anxiety may help to prevent against, or even help reverse, some of these diseases.
How Do I Know if I have G-BAD?
Now that you understand exactly what the gut-brain axis is and how it works, we can get into the big question:
What happens when this gut-brain relationship malfunctions?
Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota is known to play a role in gastrointestinal diseases, immune system dysfunction, and inflammation.
The most common symptoms of G-BAD include:
● Depression or low mood
● Fatigue, low energy, and brain fog
● Difficulty losing weight
● Digestive problems, particularly IBS
● Low libido
If you’re in a funk where weight loss is a challenge and your mood is irregular or hard to control, it may be time to try and see if boosting the health of your gut microbiome can help to relieve these symptoms.
What Causes G-BAD?
There are numerous contributing factors that may cloud the communication between the gut and the brain (3):
● Gut microbiota diversity and composition
● Integrity of the intestinal wall (leaky gut)
● Microflora production of neurotransmitters (such as serotonin), immunopeptides, hormones, and neuropeptides
But what causes this dysfunction in the first place?
While research is still underway to help us fully understand this complicated relationship, we do have some ideas as to why this dysregulation occurs:
● Sugar laden, processed food
● Other medications
4 Simple Things You Can do to Help Your G-BAD
Now we get into the good part:
What can you do to change your gut flora and use your gut-brain axis to improve your mood and health?
Studies have found that what we eat and our environment can alter the composition of the bacteria found in our digestive tract.
These studies support the idea that certain foods, behaviors, and supplements can help us with a variety of disorders, from anxiety and depression to obesity and metabolic syndrome.
Here are 4 scientifically valid things that you can do to help get your gut-brain axis back to working for you, not against you.
Probably the easiest and most effective step that you can take to help get your GBA into check is to supplement with probiotics.
In particular, you will want to add in a special kind of probiotic called psybiotics, also known as psychobiotics. These are special probiotic strains shown to help benefit the gut-brain axis.
Psybiotics are defined as “live bacteria and yeast that have beneficial effects on the Gut-Brain Axis, especially your digestive system.”
Many of the studies discussed above found benefits to daily supplementation of certain probiotics for IBS, depression, and anxiety.
2. Whole Foods
To keep your gastrointestinal flora asking for the right foods that will help you to lose weight and reduce unhealthy addictions, you need to feed those specific microorganisms.
It appears that some foods feed certain microorganisms while other foods feed different microorganisms. (6) When one type of microflora is fed, the prevalence of that specific microbe tends to increase. Then that microbe can tell you what to eat later down the road.
So if you feed the microorganisms that feed on whole, natural foods, you are more likely to crave healthy foods. When you feed the bad bacteria that eat trans fats and processed sugars, you will crave that food instead.
Fill your grocery cart with whole foods, such as fruits, veggies, meat, fish, and whole grains.
3.Add More Fiber to Your Diet
Probiotics are only half of the story when it comes to keeping those beneficial gut bacteria thriving. The other part is prebiotics.
Prebiotic foods are those that contain insoluble fiber which feeds the good bacteria living inside of your digestive tract.
And what foods are high in prebiotics? Whole foods, particularly those high in fiber. Some of the best foods to consume are raw veggies. Here is a list of ten of the best dietary sources of prebiotic fiber:
1. Raw dandelion greens
2. Onion, raw or cooked
3. Raw asparagus
4. Bananas, not ripe
5. Raw garlic
6. Raw chicory root
8. Whole grains
10. Raw honey
4. Cut Out Refined Sugar
The bad bacteria and fungi that are detrimental for your health feed on excess sugars. Not to mention, a calorie-rich, sugar-laden diet nearly always pushes out the healthy whole foods that you need to build up a healthy gut microbiome.
If you want to get the most benefit for your mood and health, you need to cut out the majority of processed sugar in your diet.
At home, try to replace all white sugar with stevia, monk fruit sweetener, or raw honey.
If you are struggling with low energy, weight gain, depression, or anxiety, the answer may lie in your gut.
Gut-brain axis dysfunction is all too common today thanks to high-stress, antibiotics, and unhealthy, processed, sugar-packed foods.
The more research that is conducted the more we understand that our digestive system may be just as important as our brain in how we feel, our sugar cravings, and many health conditions.
To regain your health, try adding in whole foods high in fiber, cut out processed sugars, and add in a quality daily probiotic supplement in the form of a psybiotic. This last step is of particular importance when it comes to treating conditions that have already taken hold or when prescribed antibiotics by your doctor.
1. The microbiota modulates gut physiology and behavioral abnormalities associated with autism
2. Probiotic Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 reduces depression scores and alters brain activity: a pilot study in patients with irritable bowel syndrome
3. Bacillus coagulans MTCC 5856 for the management of major depression with irritable bowel syndrome: a randomised, double-blind, placebo controlled, multicenter, pilot clinical study
4. A meta-analysis of the use of probiotics to alleviate depressive symptoms
5. Gut bacteria in health and disease
6. How gut bacteria tell their hosts what to eat
7. Gut-microbiota-brain axis and effect on neuropsychiatric disorders with suspected immune dysregulation
8. Melancholic microbes: a link between gut microbiota and depression?
9. Probiotics reduce psychological stress in patients before laryngeal cancer surgery.
10. The effects of probiotics on depressive symptoms in humans: a systematic review
11. A meta-analysis of the use of probiotics to alleviate depressive symptoms