Updated: May 7, 2020
Gut, Mind and Immunity in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Our digestive system is responsible for much more than simply metabolising the food we ingest. This 30 foot hollow tube, that starts with the mouth and ends with the anal sphincter, plays a vital role in regulating the health of our nervous system and immune system. It is fascinating, how more than 3,000 years ago the Chinese Medicine practitioner had already figured out that our minds, emotions and immunity are strongly influenced by the status of our digestive organs.
For instance, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) attributes thinking and reasoning, the processing of information and our sense of protection with the Spleen(1). In TCM it is said that the Spleen governs the digestion and assimilation of both food and experiences. It is believed, that when the Spleen is healthy, the individual is able to properly absorb nutrients from the food ingested, and he is also capable of easily assimilating information from life experiences, which leads to feelings of safety, protection and physical nourishment.
Unfortunately, a lot of individuals experience a cluster of negative symptoms which TCM associate with a Damp or Congested Spleen. Examples of these symptoms are; bloating, digestive discomfort, constipation or runny stools, fatigue, poor immunity, hazy mind and often mild anxiety and depression.
Gut and Microbiome: Your second brain
To explain this process in greater scientific context, over recent years the terms ‘gut-brain axis’, ‘the second brain’ and ‘Brain-in-your-gut’ have been coined to describe the complex relationship between digestion and brain health (2). Years of scientific research have discovered that the communication between the nervous system of your gut - the enteric nervous system (ENS) and the central nervous system (CNS) are bidirectional and occur through one of the body’s longest nerves - the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve acts as a bridge of communication between the gut and the brain, making the health of these two organs strictly interdependent. As an example, this relationship clearly shows why some people experiencing anxiety can suffer from heartburn, and why some people suffering with ulcerative colitis may experience cognitive decline.
But what exactly are the relationship dynamics, between your gut and your brain? Most of this can be attributed to your gut microbiota. A healthy adult has around 1014 bacterial cells spread between the large intestine and the small intestine (3), a number that is 10 times larger than the sum of the cells in the body bearing human DNA. It could be said that we are a colony of more than 1,000 species of bacteria surrounded by flesh, fat and bones. Our ancestors established this symbiotic relationship with bacteria many millennia ago, and so it is no surprise that even for the modern man, friendly gut microbiome plays such a critical role in the maintenance of our health and wellbeing. Amongst the most important tasks that the gut microbiome plays, there is the;
· Maintenance of the integrity of intestinal wall and nutritional support to enteric epithelium (4)
· Protection against pathogens (5)
· Synthesis of vitamins B and K (6)
· Synthesis of anti-inflammatory cytokines and regulation of immunity (3)
· Synthesis of GABA (a powerful neurotransmitter involved in relaxation) (7)
Just by taking a look at these functions, one can easily pick up why having a healthy and balanced microbiome is fundamental for a healthy nervous system.
B vitamins are of core importance for regulating structure and function of the nervous system, and for also contributing in neurotransmitter synthesis.
GABA is required for inhibiting the firing of neurons when in excess, and its deficiency has been linked to depression, insomnia and epilepsy (8).
Additionally, we now know that more than 95% of our serotonin (the feel good hormone/ neurotransmitter) is made by a specific type of intestinal cells called enterochromaffin cells. If the function of these cells are damaged by opportunistic pathogens or poor nutrition, it is inevitable that our serotonin levels in the body will be lower than average (9).
Unlocking the potential
As previously discussed, I have provided some evidence of how brain health is so dramatically dependent on the state of the digestive system. Restoring balance and integrity within the gut, can be seen as the gateway to boosting cognition, memory and mood.
Furthermore, to properly function, our nervous system requires specific nutrients that are often lacking in a standard Western diet.
I have dedicated the following paragraph to the presentation and discussion of the nutritional adjustments and dietary and herbal supplements, which are aimed to repair your gut and improve the function of your nervous system.
· LOW CARBS AND GLUTEN FREE
The avoidance of gluten, and the reduction of sugar and starch intake should not be limited to only the coeliac and diabetic individuals. There is enough evidence now to suggest that gluten and sugar are two big pro-inflammatory compounds damaging not only the gut but affecting the whole body. Dr. Perlmutter in his book ‘Grain Brain’ provided an in-depth discussion on the effects of elevated sugar and gluten consumption on the nervous system.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt and non-GF oats which gives bread its fluffy texture. Since the agricultural revolution (12.000 BC) man has domesticated these cereals, which have become the staple food in the Western world (while rice became the staple food in the East)(10). In the last 50 years bio-engineering and hybridization allowed humans to manufacture grains, flours and foods with high gluten concentration in order to optimize mass production (11).
The evidence on how gluten affects the body is quite alarming. Gluten is found to damage gut lining, trigger low-grade inflammation, promote leakage of unprocessed macronutrient into the bloodstream metabolites; additionally, recent studies showed that it can also cross the blood-brain barrier (11).
It is no wonder that a gluten-rich diet has been linked with leaky gut syndrome, IBS, depression, anxiety, headaches and neurodegenerative conditions.
With regards to sugars and starches, abundant and constant consumption puts an enormous pressure on the pancreas, which slowly starts to produce less and less insulin. This results in prolonged high blood sugar levels which is strictly linked to serious health implications for the CNS; In fact, studies conducted on people who have average blood sugar levels above the standard values, showed a decrease in brain size, cognitive skills and memory (11).
OMEGA - 3 FATTY ACIDS
Fats also play a fundamental role in the development and maintenance of our nervous system. Omega-3 fatty acids, a family of oils found in oily fish and some nuts and seeds, are the so called ‘good fats’ as they have been shown to decrease inflammation and improve brain function. Specifically, one of the omega-3 metabolite known as DHA is responsible for making up to ¼ of the dry weight of our brain (12). However, not all omega-3 are the same. Plant derived omega-3 are poorly converted into DHA and therefore have a poor effect in terms of enhancing brain health. On the other side, fish oil (and now also some algae oil) is very high in DHA; therefore, when choosing your omega-3 supplement, make sure it comes from either fish or algae.
· PROBIOTICS AND PREBIOTICS
Probiotics are foods or supplements containing alive bacteria, which form colonies in the small and large intestine. As alive bacteria promote the manufacture of vital neurotransmitters, by making sure that you have all the right types, alongside the proper quantity in your gut, is paramount for a healthy brain and mind (6). Foods rich in probiotics are fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir; encapsulated probiotics usually consist in alive colonies which may vary in number from 1 to 50 billion bacterial cells and up to 15 different strains (depending on the manufacturer).
Prebiotics are the foods that bacteria need to consume in order to thrive. They are mainly soluble fibres called fructo-oligo-saccharides (FOS) which are found in most fruit and vegetables but especially in onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion root and chicory (13). Including these foods in your diet will promote the growth and the maintenance of a strong bowel flora
Glutamine is the most abundant non-essential amino acid in the body. In terms of gut health, glutamine plays a critical role in the proliferation of enterocytes (cells of the gut lining), and regulates the integrity of the digestive mucous membrane (14). Chronic inflammation, stress and illness are factors that dramatically decrease the concentration of glutamine in the body. This increases the risk of developing leaky gut syndrome, which is a condition where the gut lining loses its integrity and allows undigested particles to leak into the bloodstream often triggering the immune system response. Supplementation of L-glutamine is advised to anyone suffering of chronic inflammation of the digestive system such as IBS, Chrohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
· NOOTROPIC (BRAIN BOOSTING) HERBS AND MUSHROOMS
-GINKGO BILOBA (Ginkgo tree). The leaves taken internally increases the blood flow to the brain and protect brain cells from the damage of free radicals. It has shown promising results with Alzheimer’s disease and senile dementia (15)
-CENTELLA ASIATICA (Gotu kola): Traditionally used to improve spiritual health, it improves brain function and memory, alleviates fatigue and wipes out the haze from the mind (16)
-BACOPA MONNIERI (Brahmi): Traditionally used to decrease seizures and anxiety, it promotes memory and cognitive function (15).
-OCIMUM SANCTUM (Tulsi or Holy basil): One of the most sacred herbs in Ayurvedic tradition. It promotes cerebral circulation, memory, concentration, mental acuity and is specific to wipe away the ‘fog’ from the mind (15).
-ROSMARINUS OFFICINALIS (Rosemary): A powerful herb native of the Mediterranean area, it also increases cerebral circulation, protects brain cells from free radicals, boosts memory, increases alertness and wakefulness (16)
-HERICIUM ERINACEOUS (Lion’s mane mushroom): The fruiting body and mycelium of this wonderful mushroom, promotes the proliferation of brain cells, improving cognitive functions and memory.
In the ancient wisdom of the Traditional Chinese Medicine, medical practitioners and healers already knew that the key to a powerful and healthy mind is through a happy belly. Following this thread, modern science has provided us with enough evidence that a gluten free – low carbs diet, proper gut microbiome maintenance and the preservation of intestinal wall integrity are vital to the function of your brain and central nervous system. In conclusion, if you are experiencing any neurological or psychological issues and the cause is still mysterious to you, the best place to find the solution could be behind your belly button.
1) Legget D, 1999. Recipes for self healing. Meridian Press
2) Rege S, 2017. The Simplified Guide to the Gut-Brain Axis – How the Gut and The Brain Talk to Each Other. Psychscene Hub.
3) Thursbie E, Juge N, 2017. Introduction to the human gut microbiota. Biochem J.; 474(11): 1823–1836
4) Natividad J, Verdu E, 2013 Modulation of intestinal barrier by intestinal microbiota: pathological and therapeutic implications. Pharmacological research 69(1): 42-45
5) Baumler A, Sperandio V, 2016 Interactions between the microbiota and pathogenic bacteria in the gut, Nature 535(7610): 85–93.
6) Rowland et al., 2018. Gut microbiota functions: metabolism of nutrients and other food components. Eur J Nutr. 57(1):1-24
7) Dhakal et al., 2012 Production of gaba (γ – Aminobutyric acid) by microorganisms: a review. Braz J Microbiol. 43(4): 1230–1241
(8) Olsen, 2002. GABA Neuropsychopharmacology, the fifth generation of progress, pp 159-170. Available At https://acnp.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/CH12_159-168.pdf
9) Graeme-cook F, 2009. Enterochromaffin cells Surgical Pathology of the GI Tract, Liver, Biliary Tract, and Pancreas (Second Edition), 2009 Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/enterochromaffin-cell
10) Harari YH, 2011. Sapiens. Vintage
11) Perlmutter D, 2014. Grain Brain. Yellow kite books
15) Horne S, Easley T, 2016. The Modern Herbal Dispensary. North Atlantic Books
16) Bartram T, 1995. Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. Robinson