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Do you think with your stomach?

By admin | In Nutrition | on July 19, 2012

Hi everyone, this blog post is an introduction to the Gut-Brain axis. What is it? Why is it important? How does it relate to our paleo lifestyle?

What is the paleo diet and lifestyle?

The paleo diet can be broadly described as a diet that includes local, pastured, wild caught meat and fish, eggs, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and nuts; it excludes grains, omega 6 fatty acid rich vegetable oils, and other processed foods.  The paleo “lifestyle” can be described as a combination of the paleo diet with an active lifestyle that includes frequent, high intensity, functional movement based exercise, plenty of low intensity movement and adequate sleep and rest.

Why do people “go paleo”?

Each of us may have approached paleo nutrition with various goals in mind. A few of the common ones are: healthy weight loss, healthy weight gain, relieving / improving gastrointestinal conditions, preventing / improving immune system issues, preventing / reversing symptoms of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, improving physical performance, improving mental function, etc.

We’ve heard and read about the importance of insulin sensitivity (affected by sugar consumption), the role of cortisol (the stress hormone), and of good quality fats in minimizing inflammation (omega 3 fatty acid rich sources). Besides the biochemistry of these various hormones and food groups, an important piece to this puzzle, explaining the reason behind this type of nutrition, stress management and exercise, is the relationship between the gut and the brain.

Here is a very basic overview of the topic with links to resources for you to explore further.

Did you know that your gut is an extension of your brain?

The digestive tract and the brain are intimately connected to each other.

The longest cranial nerve, the Vagus nerve, is the one that passes messages between the brain and the gut. In fact, according to Chris Kresser’s podcast on the gut-brain axis, 90% of our brain’s “output” goes to the Vagus nerve through the brain stem.

The gut has 100 million neurons, the largest accumulation of nerve cells outside the brain.

May be there’s a reason why we have so many phrases like a “gut feeling”, “butterflies in the stomach”.

Why is it important?

Malfunction in the gut-brain axis plays a role in satiety, obesity, glucose control and various functional gastro-intestinal diseases (such as IBS, IBD).

An inflammation in the gut, impairing its ability to properly absorb nutrients and safe guard against damage by undigested or waste products, very quickly leads to inflammation around the brain. The brain, being a major controller of various physiological activities (modulating various neural and hormonal functions) as well as our mental faculties, is under stress and compromised in function – leading to trouble concentrating, memory, relaxing and resting, etc.

Conversely, a mentally stressful event can compromise the brain’s function which then leads to dysfunction in the digestive tract, eventually affecting the immune system. In today’s world, chronic stress is so pervasive in our culture, it explains the widespread digestive and immune disorders we see on a regular basis.

Various studies have demonstrated this relationship – presence of psychological issues (such as depression) in people with severe or chronic gut symptoms, and presence of digestive dysfunction in people with psychological issues (such as autism. ADHD). Several animal studies also demonstrate this strong correlation.

How does this relate to the paleo lifestyle?

The understanding of the gut-brain axis explains how the Paleo diet, which focusses on optimizing nutrition, supports not just better physical (digestive, immune, physical fitness) health, but also mental health. Many of us can be disciplined about our diets and our workout routines. While challenging yourself is necessary to making progress, actively managing your stress, resting and truly enjoying life is just as important!

How to maintain a healthy brain-gut axis?

  1. Consuming bone broths, fermented foods to heal and help keep the gut (and the microbes that live there) healthy
  2. Maintaining a healthy omega 6: omega 3 fatty acid ratio (eating fatty fish, avoiding vegetable oils, etc.) to minimize the negative effects of inflammation
  3. Managing stress (so often overlooked!) – yoga, time with family and friends, outdoor activities, something that brings you pleasure
  4. Improving blood flow to the brain – exercise, massage

Healthy Gut = Healthy Brain

Simply put, you can’t have one without the other.

Conventional western medicine tends to separate physiological conditions from psychological conditions. They are treated as independent systems. However, increasing evidence shows that acute or chronic mental stress and bad nutrition (either one or both) can perpetuate the other’s negative effects on the body.On the other hand, what’s amazing is that the combination of high quality, paleo nutrition and a conscious effort to managing stress can greatly improve the quality of life.

The awareness of the dynamic relationship between the gut and brain can be an effective, holistic approach to improving health and quality life – and achieving those goals that prompted us to experiment with the paleo approach!


Material for this blog post was derived from the following resources. These are great reads if you would like to go more in depth on this topic:

Chris Kresser’s Healthy Skeptic Podcast: Episode 9 – Gut Brain Axis

A research review article: The brain–gut interaction: the conversation and implications

A research paper: The brain-gut axis in abdominal pain syndromes

A blog by Emily Dean, MD, on her evolutionary medicine approach to psychiatry

* Image taken from: www.theautismdoctor.com

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