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Long before Breast Cancer entered my life, I found myself going multiple rounds with a plethora of physical and mental side effects, that I would never have thought were caused by the brain gut connection.
Only after countless research that I started to realize that the health of our digestive tract, aka gut, has more of an effect on our physical and mental well-being than originally thought.
What Is the Brain Gut Connection:
If you are reading this article, there is a good chance that you have experienced some form of feeling mentally “off” at some point in your life. You probably blamed it on a lack of sleep, stress or the start of a cold. Because how could the health of your gut possibly have an effect on your mental state?
We all know that our brain is the primary command center for our body. It takes inputs from our sensory organs and sends output to our muscles. Controls visual processing handles sounds and language. Our brains are responsible for memory and emotions, as well as orientation and navigation in our lives.
What you may not have realized is that the gut is the “second brain,” or enteric nervous system, of our bodies, and when it is out of whack, side effects felt in places beyond your digestive tract.
The gastrointestinal tract is made up of two thin layers of over 100 million nerve cells, that connect to the brain via the central nervous system. While the primary function of this system is the digestion of food, with the help of trillions of little gut microbes, when problems occur, it’s more than willing to let our big brains know about it.
When our guts are healthy, the “resident good guys” process the foods we eat with relative ease, absorb nutrients and dispose of the waste. But problems start to occur when the symbiotic balance within our gut begins to get out of whack.
A poor diet, prescription drugs, including antibiotics, and stress, can cause inflammation in the digestive tract. If the persistent inflammation is not addressed, the health of your gut can worsen, and turn into a leaky gut, which allows bacteria in the digestive tract to actually escape into the bloodstream and travel to other parts of the body. This can cause a plethora of symptoms, and most would think that anything but the health of their gut could be to blame.
When my husband and I first lived together, our diets consisted of large quantities of sugary soda, processed foods like Hamburger Helper, Frozen Meals, and anything else that was quick, easy, and inexpensive. I also worked in the high-stress world of IT support, and my hours varied from one year to the next. 8PM-4AM, 4AM-Noon, Noon-8PM, and 4PM-12AM. I was young, and it was my first job out of college, my foot in the door, so to speak, for experience, so you take what you can get. Not realizing that these off hours negatively affect the bodies sleep/wake cycle.
Then around 2008, something started to change.
One day, on a drive into work, I felt something I had never experienced before. It was something like a dizzy, almost vertigo like episode, with no real explanation for where it came from. Maybe it was stress or a lack of sleep; I wasn’t really sure, so a trip to the doctor was scheduled.
A quick examination was all it took to be diagnosed with a sinus infection, prescribed antibiotics and sent on my merry way. I finished off my script, yet I still felt off. I blamed it on stress at work, wedding planning, and a lack of sleep. Never would I have thought our diet and my digestive health could be to blame.
As the years passed, my symptoms continued to get worse. I would sleep 8-10 hours at night, yet wake up in the morning still exhausted, feeling like I barely slept at all. I suffered from a foggy brain, and could barely think straight, which sometimes made functioning at work difficult. During this time, stress was a near daily companion. Stress from work and stress from finances, I was always in a fight or flight response, so my cortisol levels were always up. Something which the body is not designed to do. Cortisol levels are designed to spike and then return to normal after the stressful situation goes away.
My battles with fatigue and foggy brain grew to include joint pains, a persistent sinus congestion, and at it’s worst, migraine auras. The worst of which caused me to lose temporarily lose vision in my right eye. It appeared instantly as a gray blob with a jagged, shimmery edge, that left my peripherals vision intact. Scared as hell that I was having a stroke, I later learned this episode was something called a Migraine Aura.
Around this time, I started reading the book “Grain Brain” by Dr. David Perlmutter. In his book he discussed the effects of genetically modified wheat on our bodies, and why so many are dealing with allergies, and intolerance that did not necessarily exist ten years ago. Suddenly light bulbs started going off in my head. Could our gluten-heavy diet of bread, pasta, and other processed foods really be to blame?
I figured we had nothing to lose, so we cut back extensively on how much gluten-based foods we ate. In a short amount of time, my symptoms began to change. The brain fog, fatigue, and sinus congestion remained, but I began to develop what I called digestive “unhappiness.” It didn’t matter what I ate, I would feel like poo. It seemed like my problems had gotten worse instead of better, so I took the next leap and went 100% gluten-free.
It was at that point that my symptoms started to improve, so I did my best to avoid gluten altogether. My diet made life particularly hard at work, as it was almost impossible to avoid temptation, and be treated as an outsider because I was “that person.” It had gotten to the point that even the littlest amount of gluten would trigger a reaction in my body usually hours later as the digestive tract was processing the food.
The issues got so bad that in 2016 I sought the assistance of a Naturopath to get to the bottom of my problems once and for all. I had realized that the brain gut connection was to blame, but no matter what I did I still felt “off.” She ran one test and determined that I had Adrenal Fatigue, but my Breast Cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2016, put a halt to treating it. After multiple runs of antibiotics post-op, I am back to a regular diet, although healing my gut is a struggle I deal with every single day.
Symptoms That Your Gut is in Need of Help:
Identifying that your gut is in distress is not easy. Symptoms can start out very subtle and can grow in severity as the damage worsens. While the symptoms can vary from one person to the next, here are a few things to keep an eye out for, and get them checked out by a medical professional.
If you remember, I removed gluten from my diet, and while it improved matters, the issue never went away. Even today, if I overindulge in dairy, bread, or pasta, my symptoms come back full force, a constant reminder of the brain gut connection. If you find you are no longer able to eat certain foods, dairy and gluten foods are most common, that you are used to be able to eat without issue, the health of your gut could be to blame.
Problems in the bathroom are something that happens to so many people, yet it is a very taboo thing to discuss. Issues like gas, bloating, constipation or chronic diarrhea, no matter what you eat, can be a sign that something is amiss in your digestive tract.
When the gut becomes damaged, it can no longer process and digest foods like it used to. You may not notice that there is an issue, seeing undigested food particles in your stool is your first defense at identifying that something is amiss with your gut. Only blood work requested by a doctor will be able to identify specifically which vitamins and minerals you may be lacking.
Have you suddenly started noticing the return of acne, when it has been years since you dealt with it? Or maybe an unexplained rash, or pimple-like cysts on your arms, or scalp. This is another warning sign of digestive issues, especially if you previously had a vast stretch of time with no reactions at all.
This is one that I have a lot of experience with, and it took me a long time to realize that my digestive health was to blame for the foggy brain, Migraine Auras, and even sinus issues. If you find that you are having trouble thinking straight, remembering simple things, or experience an increase in the number of headaches or migraines your experience in a month, your gut health could be to blame.
We’re not talking about the aches and pains that come from working out at the gym, or housecleaning or yard work. This is joint pain that is unrelenting, without strenuous activity. At its worst, I would get up in the morning and barely be able to walk because the joints in my ankles and feet were so tight and sore. You may also notice arthritis-like symptoms in your fingers, making it hard to bend and use your hands like your once did.
Fatigue is a tricky little symptom because it is so easy to blame it on not sleeping, life, or stress at work. But when the gut is severely damaged an inflammatory compound, called cytokines is formed, which has a direct correlation to fatigue. This inflammation causes an imbalance of the good and bad microbes in the system, and the more that the bad guys win, then the worse your might feel. So if you’ve slept for 9-10 hours in one night, and still wake up exhausted, the health of your gut could be the cause.
The health of our gut is directly related to our overall health. Chronic inflammation in the stomach fills the body with toxins, and can potentially weaken the bodies immune system. If you always catch a cold that going around the office, or continuously feel under the weather, your gut could be to blame and should be addressed to prevent potentially severe illnesses from occurring.
Unusual Cravings for Sugar or Carbs:
I did not make a correlation with this one until recently, with my most recent bout with digestive issues. We’ve been making a proactive approach to eat right, and avoid excessive amounts of bread, pasta, and sugars. The Candida overgrowth was starting to fade, which was especially noticeable in the early morning as my tongue was not as white as it once was. Then suddenly I began having cravings for ice cream and eating large quantities of rye bread. Suddenly the issues that began to fade came back with a vengeance, and I have been fighting an uphill battle ever since. If you find you’ve been craving sugar and carbs more than normal, indulging in those cravings is doing your gut more harm than good, as it is actually feeding the bad guys in your gut. The root cause of all the other symptoms previously discussed.
Healing your Gut Naturally:
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, it is crucial that you get checked out by a doctor, to make sure something more serious is not going on. If everything checks out OK, there are a few natural treatments that you can do to give the good guys in your gut a fighting chance they need to beat the bad guys into submission.
Bone Broth commonly comes in liquid form and is made from cooking chicken or beef bones for an extended period to extract the healthy nutrients that reside within the bones. I used this a lot during my Cancer treatments as it provided me with critical nutrients when my appetite was lacking.
Earlier this year, I was put on another medication, Nerlynx, which wreaked havoc on my gut. You can read more about my experiences in my “My Journey with Nerlynx (Neratinib)” post. I knew the importance of Bone Broth but didn’t have the time to make it from scratch, so I began using Bone Broth Protein, with the approval of my Naturopathic doctor. I use the Vital Proteins Bone Broth Protein and have tried both the Beef and Chicken version. I add it to my morning coffee, and it has done wonders. I prefer the Beef flavor as it blends better than the chicken does.
Products like Kombucha tea, kimchi, and sauerkraut are known to aid in healing the gut as they provide the good bacteria that our gut needs to send the bad guys packing. I recently found a product at my local grocery store called “Gut Shots”, by Farmhouse Culture. It is available in two flavors, Dill Pickle, and Ginger Beet. I love dill pickles and the liquid is pretty much a modification of the juice that pickles are in. I say a modification, as this product also has some fermented cabbage in it as well. I love the taste, which makes it much easier to get down than the Kombucha tea.
Probiotic supplements are packed full of the good bacteria that our bodies need to survive. With so many brands on the market, you want one that has a large quantity of Colony Forming Units, or CFUs. Since these supplements come in pill form, too few CFUs and the good guys may not survive the acid in your stomach, preventing them from reaching your gut, where they are needed most. Since the strains of good bacteria included in these products can vary from one to the next, it can be hard to choose the right one. I personally use the bone broth, and the Dill Pickle “Gut Shots”, as I have personally seen better results than with a probiotic supplement.
The next time you find yourself dealing with unexplained symptoms, there is a good chance that brain-gut connection could very well be to blame. Persistent muscle aches, fatigue, chronic illness, acne and more can be signs that your diet is unhealthy and things need to change. It may be hard at first, but kicking processed and sugary foods to the curb is in your best interest for long-term health. Your gut will thank you for it.
Till Next Time!