The Gut Brain Theory
A few weeks ago we spoke about the effects that drugs and alcohol have on the brain’s
neurochemistry (which can be viewed here ). Alcohol and Drug abuse disrupts the production of dopamine and serotonin, compromises the immune system, and severely limits the liver’s ability to clear toxins from the body. Fortunately, there are ways to remedy these issues and in most cases, the damage done is not permanent. All of these can be abated with proper nutrition. Diet in early sobriety can assist in healing the body.
The gastrointestinal tract is home to bacteria and microbes that form an ecosystem known as the gut microbiome. This collection of bacteria is essential for digestion, the immune system, mental health, and more (3).
Many of you may not fully grasp the effects alcohol has on the intestines. “Alcohol causes irritation of the lining of the intestinal tract and colon. Chronic drinking may result in inflammation, ulcers, and cancer of the intestines and colon. Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, sweating, and loss of appetite are common. Alcohol also impairs small intestine’s ability to process nutrients and vitamins and therefore can create a gut imbalance. Alcohol can also lower acidity of the intestines, allowing overgrowth of pathogenic microbes.
There are good and bad bacteria living in the intestines which creates a stabilization. A unhealthy diet can alter this balance, but a more direct and immediate affect to this system is alcohol abuse. Recent research suggests alcohol can influence the gut microbiota. Alcohol abuse, especially, can alter the delicate equilibrium and disrupt the intestinal environment. (4).
Alcohol affects how we absorb nutrients. Most of us consider alcohol to have adverse effects on the liver, but truthfully it all begins in the intestines. Abusing alcohol can directly impact the portal vein (a vein conveying blood to the liver from the spleen, stomach, pancreas, and intestines). Studies have proven that drinking alcohol creates swelling and pressure in the portal vein which affects its ability to convey blood to the liver. It is important to note that prior to compromising the health of the liver, alcohol first affects the intestines then the portal vein and lastly the liver.
Alcohol abuse induces changes in the composition of gut microbiota, although the exact mechanism for this alteration is not well known. The translocation of bacterial products into the portal blood appears to play a key role in alcohol-induced liver damage. Several studies show that the modulation of gut microbiota seem to be a promising strategy to reduce alcohol-induced liver injury.(5)
Alcohol also can affect the lymphatic system (The lymphatic system regulates tissue pressure and fluid status, provides a conduit for immune surveillance, and within the intestine, transports nutrients and other substances acquired from the intestinal lumen (2). Alcohol has a diuretic effect. This means that it stimulates the kidneys and causes them to excrete more fluid from the body. This has a negative effect on tissues affected by lymphedema (a block in the lymphatic system). Alcohol is high in empty calories that do not supply any beneficial nutrients (6.) We have new research that shows that the brains of mice contain functional lymphatic vessels that can carry fluid and immune cells from cerebrospinal fluids. A direct linkage of the gut to brain.
Lastly, many of you are familiar with leaky gut, a more direct and detectable effect alcohol has on the intestines; the ulcers mentioned above can rupture which then releases toxins or poop into your blood stream, and those toxins can eventually reach your brain.
The above information explains how alcohol affects the intestines and can physically harm the body, but what about the mind? Do the intestines have an effect on the brain as well? Harvard reports that “A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected.” (8)
We can see that if we have abused our intestines with years of alcohol-abuse our brain can be affected. When beginning abstinence, we do not have any numbing agents to distract us from these adverse effects. We may notice an increase in depression and anxiety, but with no drugs or alcohol to hide these emotions the symptoms seem increasingly worse and can be a huge trigger.
Healing the intestines can greatly affect one’s mental state when beginning a road to recovery. “There is new evidence suggesting that targeting gut microbiota and intestinal health is a crucial part of recovery from gut-brain perspective. This includes reducing the likelihood of relapse and remission,” said Keith Bell, Founder of The Gut Club based in Palm Beach County, Florida. “The gut microbiota regulate levels of amino acids which cross the blood-brain barrier to form neurotransmitters such as serotonin and this affects the excitatory glutamatergic system. Research regarding addiction also includes how our metabolism affects histamine receptors in the brain, related to brain inflammation. Diet, probiotics and prebiotics are tools for recovery,” said Mr. Bell.
This process of healing starts once an individual seeks treatment and enters a rehabilitation facility. Most treatment centers utilize a nutritionist during treatment, but diets are not monitored, and patients have free reign when it comes to what they eat, especially with the Florida model at the PHP level of care. During active addiction people tend to neglect proper nutrition or in some severe cases do not eat at all. This accumulated with SUD can mean terrible things for ones intestines. These behaviors starve the body of vitamins and nutrients. People in recovery may have trouble with weight gain and energy levels. The body has been working overtime to purge toxins and hasn’t received the vital nutrients to perform the task of healing. It is essential to provide the body with the foods it truly needs.
The benefits of adopting a healthy and nutritious diet range from looking better all the way to feeling better. A nutritious diet can boost production of dopamine and serotonin in the brain which is responsible for feelings of pleasure. The immune system begins to recover as well and can now fight off common infections and colds. The bacterial ecosystem in the gut may begin to regulate. The body starts to build up energy reserves and is able to metabolize those reserves when needed as opposed to relying on exogenous chemicals.
Following a scheduled meal time is also beneficial in itself. Most addicts and alcoholics are not used to following a schedule when they begin their journey of recovery. Adhering to a meal schedule is a simple way to start, which also benefits the internal organs as they begin to recover as well.
Finding balance in early sobriety is imperative and proper nutrition plays a valuable role in the treatment process. While internal work is being done on traumas and disorders through counseling to combat the mental effects of active addiction, adopting a healthy diet will combat the remaining physical effects of active addiction. Following a healthy diet is just one of many ways of developing positive habits in early recovery and is definitely an area that should be taken seriously when you or a loved one enters treatment.