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).  

 

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