Traditional allopathic medicine views disease as the result of a breakdown of individual parts of a complex mechanical human body that can only be fixed with pharmaceuticals or surgery. And while the U. S. healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, it currently ranks in last place out of eleven high income countries and #72 for overall level of health out of 191 member nations measured in a World Health Organization study. Despite all the money spent on our healthcare system, we’ve made very little progress in addressing brain-gut disorders although the last twenty years has ushered in the dawning of a new understanding. Fully comprehending the brain-belly symbiosis (also called the gut-brain axis or GBA) is the new, more enlightened model for appreciating the human body and how it works.
Today, our understanding of how to treat and prevent diseases is being transformed with a greater knowledge of the microbiome and the tiny microbes that actually hold the keys to human health.
The study of the gut-brain axis is an evolving field having gotten its start in the early 2000s. From 2000 to 2010, we learned more about the brain than we had in all previous human history. As a result of this study, near the end of that period, researchers were starting to call the gut the second brain because they realized there is an enormous number of neurologic connections and neuroregulatory bodies in the gut microbiome. From the nasal sinuses to the rectum, we’re talking about the largest macro membrane in the body with a surface area of two tennis courts. Contrast that with the total surface area of the 50 to 100 layers of skin cells comprising just 1-1/2 square meters.
It isn’t commonly known, for example, that 90% of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which modulates everything from mood to focus to creative capacity, is actually produced in the gut lining rather than in the brain itself. This is only one example that demonstrates how the brain is fully responsive to the gut. The gut makes everything the brain needs and signals all this information to the brain. The brain is actually secondary to the gut in a myriad of ways.
The gut and the microbes living within it, known as the gut microbiota, in tandem with the signaling molecules which the microbiota produce from the microbiome,(1) comprise one of the most significant components of the regulatory mechanisms that help our brains and bodies adapt to our environment-in-flux. These mechanisms include metabolism, digestion, immunity, and brain development and vitality, to name a few.
The brain and gut are connected by a bundle of nerve fibers called the vagus nerve. It is now known that the brain, the gut, and the trillions of microorganisms that thrive in the gut, all communicate with each other, their signals transported back and forth along the vagus nerve.
The two-way communication of the gut-brain axis links emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions, namely, the intestinal walls. The bidirectional communication ‘highway’ links the central nervous system to the enteric nervous system, a mesh-like system of neurons that governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract.
The gut microbiota send signals to the brain and the brain sends signals to the gut-microbiota by means of neural, endocrine, immune, and humoral (fluid) links.
This complex system of communication ensures the appropriate maintenance of gastrointestinal homeostasis, but in addition, it’s believed likely to have multiple effects on will, desire, motivation, and higher cognitive functions.
The entire network of this bidirectional communication system includes:
• the central nervous system
• both brain and spinal cord
• the autonomic nervous system(2)
• the enteric nervous system briefly described above, and
• the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. (3)
When the brain and belly’s exquisite crosstalk is disturbed, we tend to experience negative health consequences such as stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, and chronic pain.
So what disturbs the exquisite crosstalk between belly and brain? The answer is the disruption of the beneficial bacteria that is supposed to very naturally occur and thrive in the intestines. The old medical belief that we must kill everything that moves in the world of bacteria has led to the massive destruction of natural life-supporting forces in the gut that would otherwise keep our bodies in homeostasis, alive and brimming with vitality and energy.
“…The profound discovery that we’re making over the last 20 years of genomics is to find out that human health is not founded upon, is not at the center of the human cell. At the center of human health is the microbiome, 40,000 species of bacteria, 300,000 species of parasite, hundreds of thousands of species of protozoa, three and a half million species of fungi, that’s at the center of human health.” —Zach Bush, MD
The National Institutes of Health tell us that gut microbes occupy one to three percent of our body mass which is often heavier than an average three-pound brain.
For many, the idea of bacteria has come to mean something very negative, even dangerous, but this is a gross misunderstanding. Harmful, unfriendly bacteria exist, yes, but our focus should be on populating our intestines with friendly bacteria to not only encourage an elegant communication between gut and brain but to elevate our level of health and vitality.
In fact, beneficial bacteria are also called friendly flora. (6) Flora is the scientific term for a group of plant or bacteria life. (The word flora is not restricted only to the meaning of plants and plant life.)
These microorganisms, the bacterial flora, constitute your intestinal ‘garden.’ And it’s a garden that needs to be maintained just like any garden. A well-cared-for inner garden will make everything the brain needs and will signal that information to the brain.
It’s believed that by adjusting the types of bacteria in the belly, it may not only be possible to improve brain health but reverse very many chronic conditions we may be experiencing.
60 to 70% of the entire body's immune system lies right behind the gut lining. If you have a chronic ailment, whether it's minor like postnasal drainage or constipation, or more serious like heart disease or obesity, the fact that the condition continues to manifest in your life every day is largely because your inner terrain continues to support that condition. When we adjust and bring back balance to our inner terrain, we see many chronic conditions dissolving very quickly.
This means that we have an almost incalculable capacity to change how we feel today by changing, supporting, and nurturing our inner terrain.
For the last 60 years, Western medicine protocol has been killing all bacteria (whether good or bad) with a proliferation of antibiotic prescriptions (‘antibiotic’ means ‘against life’) to the tune of 7.7 million pounds of antibiotics a year or roughly 833 prescriptions per 1000 persons.
Add to this all the antibiotics which prevail in our food system and in our soil—the soil being the first place we encounter vital friendly flora which enters the food we eat. Antibiotics don’t discriminate. They kill all flora, both unfriendly and friendly, and in the process, they destroy critical building blocks for our brain chemistry.
When we take away the good bacteria in our gut, we’re not only trying to build the brain with no neurotransmitters, we make the gut vulnerable. When the gut is vulnerable and weak, we become ill.
The large intestine houses over 700 species of bacteria performing a wide variety of functions and it’s the largest bacterial ecosystem in the human body. The good news is the gut-brain axis can be positively influenced and gut health improved relatively quickly when we focus on consuming:
• omega-3 fatty acids
• wild fermented foods
• plant-based foods and
With over 700 species of bacteria in the intestines performing a wide variety of functions, it’s impossible to repopulate the gut with dietary probiotics in capsule form. That’s why this option is listed last above.
The best way to maintain intestinal flora is to eat as much organic food as possible because soil that has been respected and well treated and plants that have been grown in such soil, without the use of harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides, will transfer the bacteria you need into your body when you consume these plants.
An example of this is in the story of an agriculturalist who was visiting remote parts of Iceland and discovered rich-tasting vegetables produced without chemicals. On returning to the U.S., he conducted studies on the soil which revealed the secret of the soil’s growing power: a unique strain of Bacillus laterosporus (B.O.D. strain), a naturally occurring friendly bacteria.(7)
Wild fermentation relies on naturally occurring bacteria to ferment the food you consume and is also an excellent way to take the guesswork out of consuming friendly flora.
“Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world. Wild foods, microbial cultures included, possess a great, unmediated life force, which can help us adapt to shifting conditions and lower our susceptibility to disease.” —WildFermentation.com
“Nature favors diversity. A diverse ecosystem, whether in a forest or in our gut, is the source of health. That’s because a healthy ecosystem is characterized by checks and balances where no one organism can cause trouble. When the gut microbiome is well supplied with a diversity of probiotic microbes, its health benefits are maximized.”
We need to go beyond the antiquated, myopic belief that microorganisms are our enemies and embrace the broader understanding of the microbiome as an actual parallel civilization that is worthy of our respect and understanding.
We must learn to engage with and nurture our own gut microbiome for the benefit of our own health. This will lead us to new insights into the mechanisms behind human health, vitality and quality longevity.
And finally, we must begin to reverse the massively destructive impact industrial farming, chemical pesticides, the pharmaceutical industry and many aspects of Western medicine have had on both human and planetary health.
(1) Microbiome: the combined genetic material of the microorganisms in a particular environment or ecosystem
(2) Autonomic nervous system: part of the peripheral nervous system which supplies muscles and gland and influences the function of internal organs)
(3) The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is a complex set of influences and feedback interactions among the hypothalamus,(4) the pituitary gland, a pea-shaped structure located below the thalamus,(5) and the adrenal glands, small conical organs situated just above the kidneys.
(4) Hypothalamus: a region of the forebrain below the thalamus which coordinates both the autonomic nervous system and the activity of the pituitary controlling body temperature, thirst, hunger and other homeostatic systems, and involved in sleep and emotional activity.
(5) Thalamus: either of two masses of gray matter lying between the cerebral hemispheres on either side of the third ventricle, relaying sensory information and acting as a center for pain perception.
(6) A community of bacteria that exists on or in the body, and possesses a unique ecological relationship with the host.
(7) Bacillus laterosporus is a spore bearing bacteria. This enables the encased spore to survive the stomach acids, thus the full benefit of Bacillus laterosporus blooms and flourishes in the colon to establish colonies enhancing the immune system. B. O. D. “is a live organism which punctures the cell membrane of bacteria and fungi, consuming them phagocytically (eating and digesting)." —Scott J. Gregory O.M.D. in "A Holistic Protocol for The Immune System"
Mayer, Emeran. The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health. Germany, Harper Wave, 2018.
Tucker, Tammy. The Belly Brain Solution: Gut-Brain Axis Connection to Health. N.p., CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.
Carabotti, Marilia et al. “The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems.” Annals of gastroenterology vol. 28,2 (2015): 203-209.
Fasano, Alessio, and Flaherty, Susie. Gut Feelings: The Microbiome and Our Health. United States, MIT Press, 2021.
Gregory, Scott J. A Holistic Protocol for The Immune System. Progressive. June 1995.
Bacterial Flora. 13 Aug. 2020, https://med.libretexts.org/@go/page/8061.