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Gut to Brain: how to protect your blood-brain barrier

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The blood-brain barrier is a layer of cells surrounding most of the blood vessels in the brain, made up of cells called endothelial cells that are tightly smooshed together, forming what are known as tight junctions.

These tight junctions strictly regulate what is allowed into the brain from the bloodstream. Another organ that requires some permeability but also keeps strict regulation through tight junctions is the small intestine.

So can the health of the gut affect the health of the brain?

The GUT <–> Brain Connection

When developing in the womb, the gut and brain start out as the same clump of cells, at a point separating yet staying intimately connected through the vagus nerve. These two organs remain BFF’s for the rest of life, in constant communication with one another.

When I recognized how important the gut-brain connection is, I realized that the gut is the front line to protecting the brain. The gut, although located on the inside of your body, is really part of your external barrier to the world. This neuron and microbe rich organ is responsible for what is allowed into your bloodstream, which may ultimately make its way to your brain.

Just as the endothelial cells of your brain create tight junctions to be highly selective as to what makes it through to the brain, so are the endothelial cells of the small intestines. These tight junctions, if in proper working order, are selective in the molecules allowed to pass through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. A healthy gut may miss molecules here and there, but for the most part healthy, tightly adhering cells keep the junk out, while letting the health promoting stuff enter the body.

Much to the delight of our tastebuds, but the detriment of those cells in the intestines, the creation of super tasty and highly addictive junk foods and drinks have put many guts in jeopardy. Artificial and modified molecules not contained in whole, natural foods (molecules like overly simplified carbohydrates, misshapen fatty acids, and artificial flavors and colors) confuse and damage the cells, ultimately breaking down those tight, protective junctions. When this happens, molecules can pass through the gut and create inflammatory damage in the body, including to the gut itself, exacerbating the problem.

How tight junctions in your gut protect your brain

The vast majority of what enters our bodies comes in through the gut. We can breath stuff in, we can inject stuff, and bacteria or viruses can gain entry through the nose, mouth, eyes, lungs, or an open cut or sore. But most of the time molecules gain access through our digestive tract. This article lists health factors linked to “leaky brain”, and they include:

  • Inflammation
  • Toxins
  • High calorie/high fat diet
  • Liver damage
  • Diabetes/high blood sugar

Also on that list is leaky gut, and everything mentioned on the list above starts with or has something to do with the gut. In other words, focusing on gut health by eating health promoting foods can ameliorate the above factors, cutting down on your chances of developing a leaky blood brain barrier.

If you simply focus on keeping your gut healthy, it stands to reason that you would tip the scales in your favor of maintaining a tight, healthy blood-brain barrier. The one caveat I will insert here is bacterial and viral infections. Those typically happen outside the gut, but they can wreak havoc on the blood-brain barrier (long-haul covid, for instance). But those types of infections are acute and often out of your control, whereas a gut healthy diet is completely within your control.

In my next blog post I’ll address gut healthy diets, and reveal a service I use to keep my gut balanced.


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Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash