Brain Health VI: The Gut-Immune-Brain Triad

February 21, 2011

Brain Health VI: The Gut-Immune-Brain Triad 

Reference:  American Academy AntiAging Webinar: Jan 10, 2011 Andrew Heyman 

 A triad of Gut-Brain-Immune system! How on earth does that pertain to brain health? It does.  Follow me here.  Your gut is your first line of defense, checking to see what is safe and not safe from the outside world.  Once the food you eat and ingest gets past your gut, your immune system (70% of which is around the gut) has to also check and defend you.  Finally, your brain is all about learning from what your gut and your immune system are communicating back.  Is this food safe?  Can I eat it? The command and control function of your gut-immune-brain triad is all about sampling the world and checking out what’s safe. 

Where it goes awry is with stress.  When you get overly stressed and can’t escape, your brain puts out cortisol.  Too much cortisol!  It also cranks out epinephrine and nor-epinephrine from the Fight or Flight arm (sympathetic) of the autonomic nervous system.  With that kind of stress and high cortisol, your gut gets leaky.  More proteins leak through that normally would be held outside.  When they leak through, your immune system reacts and gets over-stimulated, putting out all sorts of chemical messengers called cytokines that circulate back up to your brain and cause inflammation, not just in your gut, but also in your brain.  The epinephrine acts as a multiplier of the cortisol effect to help create a vicious cycle of stress, injured gut, hyped up immune system and then a feedback to your brain where you get emotions of anxiety, chronic pain, fatigue.  

Think of the last time you were under stress.  Did your tummy ache or feel all riled up?  Did you get a cold?  Did you feel exhausted and tired?  Did you have more aches and pains?  Headache? It’s likely you can easily think back and relate to an event like this. How did you recover?  Probably by your own native resiliency and common sense.  But can you be more intentional the next time.  Can you see the functioning triad of brain-gut-immune malfunction and how they all contribute to the cycle of perpetuating dysfunction?  You get a vicious cycle set up that keeps turning the wheel of stress.  If you can break the wheel’s turning at any point, you can interrupt the momentum.  Try it. 

 Here are some tips.  For example, we now know that you can turn on your parasympathetic system (calming, mellow, relaxed side) and counteract the synergistic inflammatory effect of the sympathetic system (fight or flight) by a variety of strategies.  Breathing exercises can turn on your parasympathetic system in just a few minutes.  Meditation takes longer but lasts much longer.  Yoga does the same.  Can you take up yoga?  It’s anti-inflammatory!  And a lot safer than pills.  There’s more.  A good night’s sleep also cools off inflammation and lowers cortisol.  Gurgly upset gut?  

Probiotics will stimulate healing in your gut.  Can you take probiotics for a couple of days? Can you add theanine (200 mg) to your bedtime routine, as well as some melatonin (3 mg) so that you get a great night’s sleep?  Take theanine twice a day and see how much calmer you feel.  It’s cheap and safe.   Magnesium as a supplement will calm inflammation in your brain. (400 mg a day)  Vitamin D turns down inflammation (4000 IU a day) and is strongly associated with less depression.  Turmeric is increasingly being found to stifle inflammation.  Can you take a good walk and get sweaty?  Add all those together!  Make it a lifestyle? 

 WWW. What will work for me?  We all find ourselves in a pickle from time to time.  We feel stressed and frustrated, and then depressed.  Can you make a more holistic attack on the problem at hand?  More than just a good talk with a friend, can you think about how to soothe your churning gut, your ticked-off immune system, your burning brain?  I’m personally trying the theanine and melatonin combination for sleep.  A good night’s sleep and a lot get smoothed out in the morning.  Try it.  And remember, the theanine works better if you take it twice a day.  (Extract of green tea and been used in Japan for decades with no reported toxicity)  I’ve not ever been described as mellow, but I feel more calm and on purpose.  And cherish the talk with that good friend.  That helps too.

The Column was written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI.