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Gut Health, Part 2: The Gut and Immune System Connection

By Dr. Molly Casey

Gut Health, Part 2

Gut health directly affects the body’s overall health. One of the most significant detrimental effects of poor gut health is a compromised immune system. Many chronic conditions that Americans suffer from today occur because of a weak immune system, the root of which is often a sick gut. In addition, the level of gut health (or lack thereof) impacts mental health. As we learned in Part 1, immune system function and quality mental health are foundational components that must be addressed if one is looking to improve their health and wellness journey, and gut health is an important part of that.

Gut and Immune System

The gut has its own environment of small organisms -- called a microbiome -- that must remain in balance in order for the gut to fulfill its function of optimally breaking down and digesting food and utilizing the nutrients. When the microbiome becomes imbalanced -- too much of one type of bacteria and not enough of the other -- it is known as gut dysbiosis. When gut dysbiosis is present, function can skew and this triggers the immune system to either under- or overrespond. If it under-responds, the body becomes susceptible to infection and viruses. If it overresponds, inflammation arises and the body starts to attack itself. In both situations, if this dysbiosis continues for any length of time, the body becomes susceptible to chronic long-term health conditions.

Some common signs of gut dysbiosis include stomach conditions such as consistent bloating and/or gas, and irregular bowel movements, which indicates the body is struggling to process and eliminate food nutrients and wastes. Autoimmune conditions involve the body attacking itself, and like systemic inflammation often have a gut dysbiosis element at the root. Imbalanced gut bacteria can cause poor sleep and insomnia because serotonin is involved in sleep and it is produced in the gut. Skin conditions such as acne can have a gut dysbiosis element because hormone balance requires gut flora balance. Skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis are inflammatory responses and gut dysbiosis overreaction triggers inflammation. Gut dysbiosis can also play a major role in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD). Other symptoms can include chronic fatigue, heartburn and acid reflux, food intolerances, and aching joints.

Gut Health and Mental Health

Healthy gut flora balance is shown to benefit overall mental health by enhancing the overall gut environment -- the microbiome. Research shows that microorganisms in the gut transmit brain signals through pathways that are involved with formation of brain neurons and behavior control. Inflammation is also shown to negatively affect how one’s brain thinks. Inflammation is a common result of gut dysbiosis. These functions and links offer explanations as to why depressive thoughts and behaviors are common with gut dysbiosis.

Stress and gut health go hand in hand. When one is under either immediate life threatening stress or chronic low-grade stress, the body goes into “flight, fight, or freeze” mode of survival. When this occurs, one of the first responses of the body is to divert energy from digestion of food and gut function because the body perceives the need to stay alive (rightfully so) as more important in that moment than to digest food. Hormones like cortisol will rise, giving way to symptoms of anxiety such as sweaty palms, a quickened heartbeat, and worry.

This becomes a problem when the body has no reprieve or opportunity to reset itself into the parasympathetic nervous system and relax. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the gut, its flora, and function of the microbiome will be negatively affected. So the gut remains under chronic effects of the sympathetic, fight/flight/freeze system and the effects of anxiety will simply be compounded.

Gut health and lack thereof affect the health of the body in a myriad of ways. People frequently have little to no understanding that their gut microbiome may actually be at the root of many of their health problems. But there are ways to improve gut health, and we’ll explore that in our next article.

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