pictre of anti-inflammatory foods like fresh fruits and vegetables

How Inflammation Affects Our Gut, Brain, and Our Health and Why Diet Counts

pictre of anti-inflammatory foods like fresh fruits and vegetables

Gluten and Inflammation 

We have our brain. We also have our gut, where 70% of our immune cells live. Communication between these two are bidirectional, meaning that the gut talks to the brain and the brain talks to the gut—they depend on and affect each other. This is referred to as the gut-brain axis, and often these organs are considered as one system. Our gut is our “second” brain and has a brain-like neural network that regulates digestion, inflammation, and our immune system. When there is imbalance and inflammation in our gut, it can be detrimental to us. 

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I spent years going from doctor to doctor, receiving test after test trying to determine its cause. Finally, my primary doctor decided to give me an allergy test. I was allergic to gluten. Eliminating gluten from my diet dramatically decreased my generalized muscle pain, brain fog, environmental allergies, scar tissue in my back from surgeries, and my energy started returning. Later, when I found out that I most likely had celiac disease because my body had become so over-sensitized from years of pain and a compromised immune system, I strictly enforced a diet of no cross-contaminated foods. Soon my back pain was decreasing even more, despite my nerve damage and neuropathy. Research has found that ingesting gluten can detrimentally affect the immune system by changing composition of the gut microbiome (microorganisms), killing living cells, promoting inflammation in the gut and central nervous system, and enhancing intestinal permeability, which leads to autoimmune diseases and Leaking Gut Syndrome. (1) 

I am not saying that all fibromyalgia is caused by gluten. I wish it were that easy. What I am saying is that the health of our gut dramatically impacts the health of our immune system, body, and brain. Chronic inflammation alters the gut’s microorganisms, playing a role in human brain diseases, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Gut microorganisms “influence memory, mood, and cognition and are clinically and therapeutically relevant to a range of disorders, including alcoholism, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and restless leg syndrome”, and possibly brain diseases, multiple sclerosis and other neurological conditions. (2)

The Link Between The Gut and Emotions

 Microorganisms, known as microbiomes, in the gut send signals of alarm to the brain through the vagus nerve, triggering mood changes. Inflammation in someone’s gut can cause “anxiety-producing chemicals” in the brain, leading to depressive like symptoms such as anxiety, lethargy, decreased activity, and impaired cognition. (3) This new knowledge is changing the way some mood disorders are being treated. “Psychiatric researchers have observed that patients with higher levels of inflammatory markers…are less likely to respond to antidepressants, and more likely to respond to anti-inflammatories.” (4) 

How often have you felt your stomach upset when you were feeling anxious? 

It is true when people say that they hold their stress in the stomach. Because of the gut’s and brain’s intimate connection, the brain also exerts a powerful influence on gut microorganisms. Many studies have shown that different types of psychological stress, such as maternal separation, crowding, heat and noise stress can affect the gut’s cellular makeup. (5) Even mild stress can alter the microbial balance in the gut, making someone vulnerable to infectious disease. 

You may be eating a healthful diet, but you gut may not heal if you are experiencing a lot of stress. This is how much stress affects us. This is why meditation and relaxation are often used as part of treatments to help with irritable bowel syndrome and other GI issues. I have had clients whose complaints of stomach pain decrease after relaxation and meditation exercises. When we calm our brain we calm our gut, and vice versa.

An Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle for Gut and Brain Health and Pain Reduction

 Because of the intricate connection between the gut and brain, living an anti-inflammatory lifestyle is important in reducing chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, multiple illnesses, and related anxiety and depression. I say lifestyle because inflammation is not only caused by certain foods, but by stress. Below are some suggestions for living an anti-inflammatory lifestyle.

1. Food

Living an anti-inflammatory diet can be life changing. My colleague saw a client who complained of 8/10 pain in his neck, shoulders, arms and wrists. She changed his diet to an anti-inflammatory diet. After hard work, this client lost 18 pounds and was pain free. This was 2 years ago, and he is still pain free. 

Inflammatory foods to avoid: Gluten sugar, refined carbs, like white bread and pasta, trans fats found in fried foods, soybean, canola and corn oil, and processed foods all can cause inflammation. Alcohol also causes inflammation. As alcohol breaks down inside your body, it creates toxic by-products that lead to inflammation. 

Anti-inflammatory foods to eat: Organic, grass fed meats and fresh caught fish, good fats such as Omega 3s, fish oil, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, turmeric and cinnamon spices, herbs of basil, parsley, oregano, ginger. Green leafy vegetables, bok choy, celery, beets, broccoli, blueberries, pineapple, bone broth, collagen powder, ashwaganda, green and white tea, preservatives and additives, such as carrageenan. (6) .

What About a Low Histamine Diet?

Now, more and more I am seeing information about a low-histamine diet to decrease inflammation. Often we think of histamine when we think of allergies, because when we are allergic to something, histamine alerts the body of potential danger by producing inflammation. Histamine is found naturally in our body and is okay in small amounts. However, If you have compromised immune system and GI system, it may not be able to handle reasonable quantities of histamine that are in a variety of foods. Increased histamine can cause headaches, feeling hot, congestion, fatigue, and feeling downright miserable. Because histamine travels throughout your bloodstream, it can affect your gut, lungs, skin, brain, and entire cardiovascular system. There are a variety of foods that naturally contain histamine and cause the release of or block of the enzyme that breaks down histamine. (7)

Foods to avoid: It is best to avoid canned foods, aged cheeses, fermented foods, wine, beer, champagne, vinegar containing foods, sour foods, smoked foods, and cow’s milk.

 

It may seem difficult to eat an anti-inflammatory diet, but what it really comes down to is fresh is best. Think of frozen or freshly cooked, organic, non GMO foods, meats, fresh fish, most fresh fruits and vegetables, gluten-free rice and quinoa, eggs. 

2. Probiotics and Prebiotics 
Probiotics are “good” bacteria that help keep the gut healthy. You can find probiotics in yogurt and fermented drinks or buy them in capsule or powder form. Prebiotics feed the good bacteria, and together with probiotics they help balance the health of the gut. Some sources of prebiotics are leeks, garlic, onion, asparagus, jicama or you can buy them in capsule or powder form.
More good news about prebiotics is a study at Oxford University found that prebiotic supplements may have anti-anxiety effect, altering the way people process emotions. The subjects in the study experienced less anxiety and showed lower cortisol levels, the stress hormone. (8) Perhaps this is because it helps to balance the gut and reduce inflammation.
3. Meditation & Meaningful Activities 

Stress decreases the body’s ability to regulate inflammation, enabling it to get out of control and eventually lead to pain and disease. In a study at Massachusetts General Hospital to determine the effects of meditation on Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Irritable Bowel Disease, it was found that “meditation had somehow managed to alter more than 1,000 genes, including suppressing the protein complex responsible for inflaming the immune system and GI tract.”(9) This shows the power we have to control not just inflammation and pain, but our health.

There are various meditation techniques you can try. You can try some meditations I on my Meditations Page. Below are some meditation suggestions:

1. Breathing meditation (focusing on the breath or focusing on your abdomen rising and falling while you breathe)

2. Focusing on an object (such as candle gazing) 

3. Body Scan Meditation 

4. Guided Imagery

5. Progressive Relaxation (Progressively relaxing from head to toes or toes to head) or Autogenic Relaxation

6. Praying

7. Meaningful Activities. Engaging in meaningful activities that bring you joy can be considered another type of meditation. When you are doing something you love, often you are completely engrossed on that activity and it produces a relaxation response in your nervous system, which in  turn, suppresses inflammation. Creative, leisure activities can be as simple as laying down and listening to music, going for a hike, singing, art, spiritual/religious activities.

 

It might feel overwhelming when looking at everything that can cause inflammation, and thusly, pain. But, the amount of work you put in will lead to how good you will feel. When an anti-inflammatory lifestyle is practiced and becomes a habit, it is much easier to maintain. I can definitely attest to getting pain flare-ups when I get off of a good, healthful diet and way of life.

 

  1. Lemer, A, Shoenfeld Y, Matthias, T.  Adverse Effects of Gluten Ingestion and Advantages of Gluten Withdrawal in Nonceliac Autoimmune Disease. Nutritional Reviews. 2017 Dec; 175(12), 1046. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29202198.
  2.  Galland, Leo. The Gut Microbiome and the Brain. Journal of Medical Food. 2014 Dec 1; 17(12): 1261-1272. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4228144.

3. Miller, A and Raison, C. The role of inflammation in depression: from evolutionary imperative to modern treatment target.  Nat Rev immunol. 2016 Jan; 16(1):22-34. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5542678/

4. Dr. Brogan, Kelly. From Gut to Brain: The Inflammation-Depression Connection. Retrieved from: https://kellybroganmd.com/from-gut-to-brain-the-inflammation-connection/.  

5. Bailey MT, Dowd SE, Galley JD, Hufnagle AR, Allen RG, Lyte M. Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation. Brain Behav Immun. 2011; 25: 397–407. Retrieved  from: http://web2.uconn.edu/lyneslab/Lynes_Lab/MCB_5255_files/microbiome%20and%20immunity%20ms%2010.pdf.  

6. Dr. Andres, Weil. Is Carrageenan Safe? Nov. 1, 2016.  Retrieved from:  https://www.drweil.com/diet-nutrition/food-safety/is-carrageenan-safe/.

7. Dr. Myers, Amy. Everything You Need To Know About Histamine Intolerance. Oct.3, 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-11175/everything-you-need-to-know-about-histamine-intolerance.html.

 8. Canole, Drew. The Shocking Truth about Gut Health and Probiotics. Organifi. Retrieved from: https://www.organifishop.com/blogs/news/the-shocking-truth-about-gut-health-and-probiotics.

9. Kuo B, Bhasin M, et. al. Genomic and clinical effects associated with a relaxation response mind-body intervention in patients with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. PLOS ONE. 2015 Apr 30;10(4).  

 

B&W picture of woman looking out on a lake on a cloudy, cold day

The Power of Our Perceptions When Suffering From Chronic Pain

B&W picture of woman looking out on a lake on a cloudy, cold day

I am often asked, “What helped you to get better, to overcome pain?”            

There are many things from a healthy diet, to yoga, stretching and exercising, to certain medical treatments like prolotherapy. Those helped me physically. What helped me emotionally cope with chronic pain, and still does, all started many years ago at an event that taught me about the power of our perceptions. I almost did not attend because I knew that one hour of laying on the floor instead of my bed, would cause tumultuous muscle spasms and increased pain; but, I am grateful courage came forth that night. It started me on a path of deep healing. 

That eventful night, I attended a Dharma talk in a run-down, white house in San Francisco. Perfectly centered between gold and red tapestries that cascaded down the front walls of a small room sat a monk whose serene expression contrasted the sharp, prickly hairs that stood erect on her shaved head. Her serenity brought me a glimpse of peace to which I and the other nineteen attendees hungrily clung.

The Dharma talk’s topic was Suffering. I knew this word well, as do most people. Its meaning is understood through experience that encroaches upon us by one means or another. To me, chronic pain was synonymous with suffering.

 “We are the cause of our suffering,” the monk told us matter-of-factly and gave an example: Imagine standing in a long line, and a stranger pushes you aside to get ahead. What is your first reaction? Do you yell at the person or make sly comments out of anger and impatience while she stands in front of you? Do you envision ways to get back at her for taking your spot and making you wait longer? Do you politely tell her that you were already there? “Or,” offered the monk, “do you first consider the possibility that this person may have been distracted by her own thoughts, not even realizing that she jumped ahead in line, or perhaps, she is in a hurry for a very important reason and it is okay to let her go before you?”

Then, she asked us:

  • Which reactions would create anger, impatience, and tension—more suffering?
  • Which reactions would not create suffering?
  • Do you think that the situation created your emotional suffering, or was it your thoughts and reactions to the situation?

 “How we perceive a situation affects our emotions and thoughts,” was the wisdom that the monk shared with us that night. 

   

Does Pain or Our Perceptions of Pain Cause Our Feeling Victimized? 

When I went home that night, I wondered how the Dharma talk pertained to me. I first thought that the stranger the monk talked about was my pain. Pain was a ferocious entity, a parasite that cruelly sucked so much life from me, cutting me off from the world. I was furious with pain. It exhausted me. It exhausted my hopes. I tried to control it, but my inability to do so resulted in feeling victimized—conquered. I resented this, thusly, I feared and rejected pain more.

Yet, later that night after the Dharma talk, I realized the stranger, which I originally thought was pain shoving and pushing me aside, was actually me. I had become my own victim. The pain was not destroying me; my thoughts, beliefs, perceptions of and emotional reactions to pain had been making me feel victimized. As we enter experiences with certain beliefs, we in turn, create a reality to validate these beliefs. Reality, or more literally, our perception of reality, is what we make it. The meaning I gave suffering, and the story about my suffering on which I ruminated, caused my suffering.

Although I hated pain and battled and feared it, I began to recognize that I did not actually hate and fear pain itself, I hated and feared feeling pain. I was not afraid of pain, I was afraid of suffering and what I emotionally identified with the concept of suffering. It is not emotional or physical pain, but the aversion to pain that caused my suffering. I had created a world of rejecting experiences (rejecting the sensation of pain, my body, myself). How could I not feel anything but enormous fear, depression, and loneliness? It was I who had been taking away my power, not pain.

Pain can feel overwhelmingly powerful, physically, mentally, and emotionally; however, just as our mind can play a large part in our suffering, it can also free ourselves from suffering. Our perceptions are subjective, not fixed. We can change our thoughts, perceptions, attitude, beliefs, and our outlook. 

 

That night, the Buddhist lecture initiated my process of learning that when we look through the keyhole into our life, it is important to detach from thoughts, desires, emotions, fears, actions and reactions. When we let go of unhealthful thoughts and reactions, we create space for positive thoughts, open-mindedness, adaptable thinking, and joy. 

I never want to limit my life, but rather, enhance my life with a reality of possibilities.

Joy

Podcast: Sharing My Experiences with Pain and Healing

In this podcast, I share with Emmy Vadnais, a Holistic Occupational Therapist, my healing journey from back injuries that kept me bedridden on and off for 2 years, along with 5 years of learning to walk again. For me, healing means connecting to our true self and embracing all that we are so that we may live life with meaning and joy. I also hope to be a voice for people who experience pain, educating others on the multi-dimensional effects of pain and the resulting struggles.

11:20 Meditation as a Coping Strategy
18:38 Emotions & Pain
23:00 The Balance between Activities & Pain
31:00 BioPsychoSocialSpiritual Components
35:00 Fatigue & Chronic Pain/Illness & the famous Spoon Theory
41:46 Pain & Trauma/PTSD/Panic Attacks
45:00 Gaining a Sense of Control
49:50 Discussing Pain Medication & the Opioid Crisis

You can find more podcasts by Emmy at HolisticOT.
dock leading out to swamp

Pain and the Mind-Body Connection

dock leading out to swamp
 

At one point, I realized that my physical pain had become emotional pain, and the emotional pain further increased my physical pain. A vicious cycle of pain had formed, and my body had become more stuck in its protective state: contracted, tense, and cringing from the slightest touch, while physical and emotional hypersensitivities heightened.

Emotional pain or distress is physical distress; they are one and the same. The more emotionally stressed I feel, the more tense and painful my body feels, as well as the more likely I am to catch a cold. When my mind is more relaxed, so is my body, and my immune system is stronger.

The mind and body mirror each other.

When one is under stress, so is the other. They endure the same experiences at the same time, yet the effects are uniquely expressed in an individual.

A break-up with a loved one may cause emotional depression and literally a physically hurt heart and a sleep disorder. Ongoing emotional anxiety may mentally cause pervasive, negative thoughts and physically cause nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, and high blood pressure. A misaligned spine may cause anxiety and a feeling (“felt sense”) of insecurity, just as the spinal column is insecure. How many times have you felt anxious and irritable to only discover after “checking in with yourself” that you are hungry and your blood sugar is dropping?

Our behavior and our sense of self are also related to our physical and emotional pains. When my body feels insecure and weak, I know that I feel insecure and less confident, and I act insecure by behaving shyly and studying the floor instead of looking at people in the eyes. When the pain is physically intolerable, I feel anxious, I start talking a mile a minute, and I become fidgety and unable to concentrate.

It is empowering when we recognize how challenges and stressors individually affect us, and learn to cope with them. If we do not cope with them but instead, repress our emotions, eventually mental, emotional, and physical complications arise and our well-being deteriorates. Destructive thoughts and emotions can be just as crippling as physical ailments.

Pain is traumatic.

It affects us on many dimensions. Although it is acknowledged that physical pain can lead to depression and anxiety, I also believe that the mere experience of being injured, the experience of a medical procedure, and the memories from each event are traumatic in and of themselves, and may lead to post-traumatic stress.

Due to this inherent link between mind and body, psychological and physical states, I believe both need to be treated in order to achieve recovery and overall well-being. I believe this leads to a more powerful and effective rehabilitation. Healing is the harmonizing of mind and body.

We have a great gift of inherent wisdom mentally and physically within us. Learning this deep wisdom may seem as difficult as learning a completely new language, or at least that is what I found true for myself. We need to be fully aware. There are no separate levels of consciousness or of one’s self as a whole; there are merely different levels of attention. Through inner awareness we can learn what we need to create harmony within our mind and body.

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