The Gut and the Brain
When it comes to nutrition and our health, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that with the changes in the Standard American Diet the rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, and mental health problems such as depression, attention problems, anxiety, and autism are on the rise. The good news is that you can protect and improve your health by improving your diet. In fact, by changing your diet, you can take control over your wellbeing.
While conventional medicine has become reliant on using medications to treat symptoms rather than root causes, new movements in medicine, known as integrative medicine and functional medicine look below the surface to address the root causes of disease. Surprisingly, the root cause of a brain problem may be in the gut. Research evidence is accumulating for the connection between gut bacteria, gut inflammation, digestive functions and the brain. A number of books, such as Bugs, Bowels and Behavior, a new scientific journal called Brain and Gut, and a whole new field called neuropsychoimmunology have appeared in recent years documenting the links between the gut and the brain.
Our guts have the increasingly complex job of sorting out the good from the bad as our food is changing rapidly with industrialization of agriculture and processed food production. We are exposed to numerous chemicals synthesized by chemists to make our food taste and smell a certain way. Since these chemicals did not exist in the past, we don’t know what effects they may have on our bodies in the long term. We are also exposed to antibiotics, which can kill the good bacteria in the gut. It is not surprising that our digestive tracts may be stressed.
An unhealthy diet, and even an apparently healthy diet, may cause inflammation and damage to the digestive tract, which then can manifest through a multitude of symptoms. Since we absorb nutrients, vitamins, and minerals through our digestive tract, a disruption to our digestion can result in nutrient deficiencies. Nutrient deficiencies can cause symptoms in many body systems.
The specific foods that cause trouble vary between individuals. It depends on the person, and their particular genetic predispositions and life experiences. Food sensitivities and allergies may be quite difficult to pin down, and allergy testing is less reliable than an elimination diet for finding food allergies. In many cases the food that is craved the most may be the food that is causing problems.
Symptoms of food intolerance may look different from person to person. Below are just some of the symptoms that have been linked to food allergies or intolerances .
- mood disorders
- Migraines and headaches
- autoimmune disorders
- gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, nausea and pain
Gluten and the Brain
By now, everyone has heard of gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye and is the first item eliminated in many elimination diets. Maybe you know someone who eliminated gluten from their diet and, like magic: they lost weight, their acne cleared up, they experienced better digestion, better sleep, and better sex. Some people experience a dramatic change, while others do not notice a difference when they eliminate gluten. Those who feel the strongest effects of eliminating gluten may have celiac disease, or the less severe problem of gluten sensitivity.
When someone has celiac disease their immune system reacts to gluten and damages the lining of the small intestine. A healthy digestive tract lining has many finger like projections called villi that increase the surface area of the gut to help to absorb food. In celiac disease the intestinal lining flattens out, and with decreased surface area plus inflammation food cannot be absorbed effectively. This can lead to a variety of problems either immediately or later in life. In individuals without celiac disease, gluten may cause inflammation of the intestinal lining and “leaky gut.” In leaky gut, the cells lining the intestines lose their ability to keep out partially digested food particles from crossing into the bloodstream, and causing a variety of immune reactions.
Gluten is just one of many foods that may cause sensitivities and leaky gut. While it can be challenging to pin down what food is causing symptoms, the benefits of discovering food sensitivities can be profound for physical and mental health.
You can have control over the diagnosis and treatment of your health conditions through using an elimination diet! There are many types of elimination diets, and you can pick the right elimination diet for you. The diet described here is based on the Institute for Functional Medicine elimination diet guide. Having the support of a doctor, a friend, or a group may be helpful in making the commitment and sticking to the elimination diet.
Elimination diets require effort, motivation, and a dash of creativity in the kitchen. To begin an elimination diet you should stop eating the most common offenders for at least three weeks. Children often respond more quickly and can see results in 7-10 days. Make an effort to stick to at least 21 days because it takes approximately that long for the immune system to stop reacting to the a food that caused a sensitivity. Prepare for the elimination diet by slowly lowering your caffeine intake to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches.
Foods to Eliminate:
- gluten grains (barley, rye, spelt, wheat)
- white sugar and added sugars
- processed meats
- coffee, tea, and chocolate
This can be an overwhelming list, and it is certainly a lot to eliminate in one go. If you would rather take things slowly then start by only eliminating gluten and dairy.
However, it is worth embarking on the full elimination diet for at least 21 days. If you are motivated consider a three-month elimination diet, as effects of some foods, including gluten, can take three months to fully wear off. Remember that it is all for a reason! Symptoms may resolve (even symptoms you weren’t aware of), and you will experience the benefits first-hand. Seeing the benefits my inspire you to make lasting changes.
So what can you eat during this detox period?
Foods to eat during the elimination diet:
- Fruits in moderation
- Healthy Oils (Olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, avocado, flax seeds)
- Meats (grass fed, hormone free) in moderation
- Fish (small fish is lower in contaminants)
Foods To Consider Eliminating:
- Non-gluten grains
- Legumes (may cause gas and bloating)
- Night shade vegetables (white and yellow potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant)
If you eliminate grains and legumes, this will result in the Paleo Diet. The Paleo Diet may have the additional benefits of reducing the carbohydrate and sugar load on the body.
Some people may be sensitive to nightshade vegetables and cannot digest them fully. People with a sensitivity to nightshades may experience diarrhea, gas, bloating, nausea, joint pains, headaches and depression.
Since an elimination diet is also a detox, eat the best quality food that you can access. Aim to eat organic vegetables and fruits, and grass fed, hormone free meat.
Maintain good hydration and daily bowel movements to aid in the detoxification of the body. It is a good idea to add a probiotic supplement and a multivitamin to aid in the healing of the gut.
Dr. Oz’s website has a great printable version of an elimination diet plan you can hang on your fridge for reference.
Everything that happens during an elimination diet is good information as you become a detective about your own health. Notice if you experience detox symptoms such as headaches, runny nose, or mood swings during the first week of your elimination diet. You may want to keep a journal to record physical and emotional changes on the elimination diet.
After three weeks on the elimination diet, you may start to reintroduce the foods which you eliminated. It is important to reintroduce foods one at a time. That way, if you have symptoms you can easily pinpoint the offending food. You may want to first reintroduce the foods which you craved the most during the detox period. When you reintroduce a food, in addition to eating the elimination diet food, add two or three portions of the new food for two days and observe your body’s reaction to the food. Keep a written record of any changes in mood, energy levels, pain, sleep, concentration, stomach issues, congestion or any other symptoms you notice. If you experience discomfort or a return of symptoms during the reintroduction period, you can be fairly certain that the food you have just reintroduced has something to do with the discomfort you are feeling. If you do, in fact, experience symptoms when you reintroduce a food, stop eating the offending food and let the symptoms resolve completely before you reintroduce another new food. Keep reintroducing new foods one at a time until you test all the foods you eliminated.
The Institute for Functional Medicine offers a variety of resources for planning an elimination diet. While elimination diets do clearly take time, effort, and creativity, the results can be very useful. You may come away with a diet especially tailored for your body to help you feel healthier by the day.