In my research, I have found inflammation to be at the root of almost every disease. Type the “I-word” into PubMed and the results come back with over 500,000 articles. That alone speaks to the influence of inflammation in disease. What I did not know was that there exists a gut brain connection.
Part of my interest in inflammation is on a more personal level. When I initially started researching, I wanted to find out more about the relationship between inflammation and acne and what I could do to improve my skin condition using a nutrition-based approach.
Chronic inflammation, I found, is directly associated with lifestyle factors like stress and nutritional choices. It directly influences the functionality of your brain and how you feel.
To truly live a SKIED lifestyle, fighting chronic inflammation through proper gut health and stress reduction should be a high priority.
Our bodies are made from a series of connected complicated processes. We must take steps to identifying the source of any problem including inflammation. By acting on what we have control over, we help fight against the things that impact our feelings, mood and even willpower.
For the purposes of this article, I will discuss and introduce the topic of inflammation and its connection between the gut and brain. This article will only breach the surface of the major underlying issues of chronic inflammation. In the end, I hope you choose to nurture your gut health in the quest to simply kill it every day.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is our body’s way of fighting biological responses serving as a protector to harmful stimuli such as toxins, damaged cells, or irritants. During injury, the body shuttles white blood cells sent to the injured site which aids in the rebuilding of tissue and muscle clearing out any damaged cells.
Inflammation is typically classified as either chronic or acute.
Acute inflammation is the body’s initial response to injury. Typically this happens within a few seconds or moments after a tissue or area is injured.
This type of inflammation is absolutely necessary for the fight against infection. By shuttling cell adhesion molecules through the blood, the acute inflammatory response triggers cell repair and growth in the healing of any injury. Often short term, some of the traditional signs or names of acute inflammation are:
- Loss of function
Acute inflammation is a healthy part of cell repair. And without it, the skin and our bodies would not heal. But what happens when that acute inflammation lingers?
Chronic inflammation is acute inflammation’s evil brother. It is a long-term occurrence in the body due partly by a constant shift in cells at the site of inflammation. It can be caused by a few different things, including prolonged exposure to toxins or infection. This causes negative effects on the body’s ability to repair and is the result of the failure to eliminate the original cause of acute inflammation.
Chronic inflammation happens when the body sends an inflammatory response to a perceived internal threat that does not require an inflammatory response. The white blood cells gather but have nothing to do but to follow their biological orders. During times of boredom, they get angry. Which means inappropriately finding internal organs or other tissues and cells to attack in the absence of inflammation because that’s what they are programmed to do.
Chronic inflammation is well connected to a dreadful list of destructive medical conditions, many of which are autoimmune diseases. Examples of these diseases include Crohn’s disease, Type I diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. This inflammation is what causes insulin resistance even in lean, muscular people. It prevents the growth of muscle and your body’s natural ability to repair itself. It is even implicated in aggressive behavior and depression.
Most importantly, it is a common precursor of our society’s most fatal conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. It is even part of what contributes to long-term neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Unless the root of the problem is fixed, chronic inflammation will continue to wreak havoc in our society. Where does it begin?
The gut’s influence on inflammation
Gut health and its relationship to inflammation were introduced about 70 + years ago by a few scientists by the names of Stokes and Pillsbury. These good ol’ boys first proposed how the gastrointestinal tract had links between depression, anxiety and skin conditions like acne.
It has become a common belief across the scientific community that our immune system is at the root of many of the most dominant inflammatory diseases. I guess Hippocrates was right when he boldly acclaimed that “all disease starts in the gut.”
What is it about our gut that can lead to inflammation throughout the body?
Microbiota – Gut bugs and flora
Our gut microbiota contains tens of trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1000 different species of known bacteria with more than 3 million different personalities. These gut-bugs live inside the stomach and help to regulate a healthy functioning immune system.
The health and balance of the bacterial gut-bugs in your stomach impact how your body extracts nutrients from your diet and stores fat. These bacteria also play a role in:
- Synthesizing vitamins such as vitamin B and K
- Metabolism in the large intestine
- Producing hormones from the foods we ingest that help to regulate our immunity
- A protective layer for the immune system
Your microbiome is a complex place and is highly susceptible to disturbances. Even the smallest change in diet or lifestyle can positively or negatively influence stomach functionality.
How does this relate to chronic inflammation?
Our gastrointestinal tract or stomach lining influences our body’s ability to fight harmful bacteria. If the intestinal tract or stomach lining is weakened by a community of “bad” bacteria, it increases the chance of breakdowns in the stomach lining which causes increased permeability. Altered gut microbial ecosystems have been associated with increased metabolic and immune disorders in animals and humans.
Similar to any break in a wall, this permeability opens up the opportunity for intruders. In this case, the disease-causing bacteria, toxins, and undigested food particles are more easily passed into the bloodstream where they disrupt the body’s normal function.
As a result, your immune system triggers unnecessary inflammatory responses because of this prolonged exposure to toxins within your muscle tissues. These long-term, consistent low-grade responses are what damages our bodies and are known as part of the cause of chronic inflammation.
In the fight against this, it is critical to nurture our microbiota interactions and the billions of “good” gut bacteria that aid in healthy immune function. By building a stronger stomach lining, we reduce the amount of “breaks” in the wall so the gut can keep the toxins from flowing freely throughout your body.
This means that how we treat our microbiota can directly affect some of the common triggers to inflammation. Any time your body is not properly digesting food, it results in excess toxins being passed through the blood stream. If this is constantly happening when you eat, it illustrates the importance of repairing a broken gut to ward off inflammation.
But, there is much more at stake. What many may not know is that there is a direct connection between your stomach and brain. Through signaling patterns, the brain understands that outside factors including your inflamed gut may be under attack. Armed with this false knowledge, it sends its own signals inflammatory signals to its own “immune system.” When this happens, all hell breaks loose.
The effect on your brain
The gut-brain axis consists of bidirectional communication between the central and the enteric nervous system (ENS). Our gut microbiota plays a vital role in our physical and psychological health through this ENS which is a complex system of about 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut. This system links to emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions .
The implications of this connection support the idea that irritation in the stomach is part of what sends signals to the CNS, which is responsible for mood changes.
Since immune responses originate from the gut, chronic inflammation from poor gut health is the primary suspect for the activation of these cells. The result can lead to chronic neuroinflammation which is a condition where the microglia remains activated for an extended period of time. The longer the time period under false attack, the more these cells contribute to the decline in cognitive function.The brain is composed of cells called microglia which act as the first line of defense against immune responses. This means that the microglia has the ability to be signaled by our guts to “turn on” and release inflammatory messages when there is inflammation outside the brain .
This microglia has been associated with many other unwanted consequences which include:
- Lack of sleep
Since there is a connection between the central nervous system and the immune system, the inflammatory cells can make their way past the blood brain barrier. This fires off a number of processes relating to things such as behavior changes and mental efficiency. If our blood brain barrier is compromised due to the inflammation in the stomach, our stomach will constantly send attack signals to the brain.
Increasing exposure to central inflammation throughout the body, this partially contributes to poor brain health and premature brain aging.
So what is it that affects our gut health?
When problems arise in the stomach, our body’s natural response is inflammatory signals. But what causes our bodies to react this way?
There are a number of lifestyle factors that cause stress on our stomachs and contribute to poor gut health. Human studies have shown that a variety of psychological and physiological stressors – loneliness, extreme temperatures, examinations and feeling overwhelmed– can all impair normal intestinal microflora .
Some of the most common factors that impact our gut bacteria to negatively influence our stomach balance include:
- Poor diet – processed foods, excess sugar, low-quality fats like trans-fats, gluten, dairy, etc.…
- Medications – antibiotics, acid blockers, anti-diarrhea
- Stress and hormones
- Lack of sleep
- Environmental pollutants 
Since these gut bugs are also responsible for many different series of signaling molecules that communicate with the receptors that line the inside of our gut, they can be good or bad.
- Good signal: the feeling of fullness that helps you feel more satiated from your food
- Bad signal: cravings of foods we know are not that good for it
Forget about willpower. If the environment in your stomach is bad enough, most of the thinking you do could be through your stomach. The cravings you get, the energy you have, are all influenced by gut health.
The gut and stress
The same signals apply when you are stressed. The main stress molecule that we secrete gets to the microbes and changes their gene expression patterns. This causes them to react in different ways and changes their natural behavior.
This was an eye-opener when it came to understanding some of the issues my wife faced with her Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). At one point, she felt as if she had tried everything under the sun with nutrition to help reduce her symptoms. She was nailing the nutrition part but was unaware of the huge impact her stress was having on her gut.
Since IBS is an autoimmune disease, it is heavily influenced by external factors similar to those mentioned above. Once we knew that stress affected the way her gut bugs performed within her body, she took more steps to reduce her stress, finding that to be an effective treatment for reducing the impacts of this horrible disorder.
This same stress causes immune compounds known as cytokines to contribute to the inflammatory response that damages healthy cells. When more cytokines are present in your stomach, your brain reacts to these and triggers and inflammatory response throughout your body. In this constant state of stress, it encourages more chronic inflammation .
Steps to building better gut health and brain function
The key to building better gut health is a strategy that involves both lifestyle factors and nutrition. Without the combination of these two, the progress you may be shorting yourself of your full potential.
We now know that the foods you eat can either increase or decrease your gut bacteria and determine your cravings. The solution is finding the right strategies that apply directly to you. What works for some will not work for others.
However, regardless of the outcome, the following suggested practices are still common components of a healthy lifestyle. Success or not, be confident that these practices will only provide value. I have compiled a list of what I feel are a great representation of steps for better gut health.
- Sleep – Among the million other reasons to get better sleep, research demonstrates that disrupting your circadian rhythm can have negative effects on gut microbiota. Increased cortisol triggers stress and inflammatory responses. If you are not sleeping fully, forget this article, sleeping better should be your number-one priority .
- Specific nutrition – You know that nutrition is essential for better health, and you likely have a good idea of which foods are good for your health. But have you considered that there may be healthy foods that disagree with you? Look at reducing the number of inflammatory foods such as grains, dairy, sugar, trans-fats, and processed foods. Even if their problems aren’t evident, do you want it bad enough to make a change?
- Add high fiber foods as part of your daily eating routines – The more you consistently feed your gut the good bacteria, the better they will be able to multiply. Aim for consistently consuming high fiber fruits and vegetables.
- Diversify – Like your investments, your stomach needs diversity. Include a variety of different good bacteria by adding different sources of vegetables to your diet such as the ones in the link above.
- Quality over quantity – If you’re selecting boxed foods instead of whole foods, there is a good chance that there are far fewer nutrients than what is found in natural, living food. Although they’re often more expensive, whole foods are the only choice. Isn’t it worth it to make a minor change for the greater good?
- Reduce stress – Remember my wife? Find ways to incorporate outlets for your stress by being more mindful of your emotions. Meditate like a boss. Your stomach will reward you, I promise.
- Eat more strategically – Forcing food down your throat that hasn’t been broken down well enough can affect digestion and cause stomach impairments. Be sure to eat and chew slower during meal times.
- Everything can affect your gut – Know that the drugs you consume and the food you eat can all play a role in the health of your gut. Don’t accept that there isn’t another solution. Give it another thought (and maybe a bit of research) the next time you are considering antibiotics or some type of drug, and know that this choice will influence your future. Always be on the lookout for ways to positively influence your gut with food!
- Choose quality fat sources such as Short Chain Fatty Acid and MCTs – These healthy fat sources have the ability to decrease systemic inflammation. Because they are easily digested, these fatty acids have been recognized as potential mediators to improve the effects of gut microbiota on intestinal immune function .
- Eat raw foods – Our ancestors, who had better health than us, never boiled, baked, fried or sterilized their vegetables as much as they do today with commercial produce, so why should we? By increasing the consumption of raw, locally-grown vegetables, your exposure to natural bacteria becomes closer to what the human microbiome is adapted to.
- Eat more resistant starch! –The fermentation of resistant starch alters the diversity of the gut which is directly related to a healthier gut. Additionally, consumption of resistant starch was associated with reduced abdominal fat and improved insulin sensitivity. Foods like oats, cooked and cooled rice, potatoes and green bananas are great sources.
- Limit highly processed foods – This one should come as no surprise. Any chemically-altered food wreaks havoc on your stomach because it was not built that way through evolution.
- Fight back with pre- and probiotics – Consuming more fermented foods on a consistent basis is the best way to increase the level of quality prebiotic and probiotic bacteria that we need present for gut health.
Up-and-coming studies show that declines in brain health are also related to systemic levels of inflammation. This is problematic for the SKIED mindset! All of these factors are the complete opposite of what SKIED is all about. The problems that inflammation causes can cloud your judgment. Having a direct effect on your willpower.
Without the proper willpower, you are not in total control of your hunger, energy level or cravings. And when these aren’t in check, you are more likely to make poor food (and life) choices. When you make poor food choices, you end up hurting your gut even more. The more you hurt your gut, you become inflamed. Become inflamed, and it’s too late now to say sorry.
To perform at your best, your brain must also be able to function at its best. Chronic inflammation does not help.
You may be functioning fine. But are you really giving yourself the best opportunity to perform at your most optimal level? Instead, consider how everything works together as a system. A system that can be greatly influenced by healthy choices.
You know that what you put in your body can directly affect how you feel as a person. How you move, how you think and how you show up can all be positively influenced by the foods you eat. If you want to become a better, stronger person, start by feeding your body the right nutrients to get your brain back on track.
Nutrition is never cut and dry and there is always more than one factor that influences our dietary and inflammatory problems. Stacking the conditions in your favor will put you one step closer to a healthier body and mind.
In health, know that there is a connection to nearly everything you do. This helps put things in perspective to act on reasons that are worthwhile in your life. If you believe like I do that nutrient-dense, whole foods can be used to heal, you are one step closer to solving your inflammatory problems. Understanding how to do this as simply and efficiently as possible is the key to living a SKIED lifestyle.
If you would like to share your thoughts or share a personal experience with brain fog or stomach issues, be sure to comment below!
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