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The Gut-Brain Connection

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Making their home in your gut are trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi. This rainforest of microscopic life is essential for your survival and it’s this collection of microbes that make up your microbiome. What these little guys lack in size, they make up for in their influence on your health and wellbeing.

Your gut and brain communicate with each other via your nervous system. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve and runs from the bottom of your brain to your gut. This nerve is like your body’s super-highway, sending messages between your brain and gut via neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and hormones.

 

When your microbiome is healthy, balanced and diverse with the right amount of beneficial bacteria living and multiplying, it sends ‘good’ signals to your brain, telling it everything’s okay. But when your gut is unbalanced and too many bad bacteria have made their home in your gut, it sends error messages to your brain. It’s these messages that can cause problems with your brain health, such as migraines. This communication system is known as the gut-brain axis. (1, 2)

 

Your gut also helps to make hormones such as serotonin, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which help regulate body systems such as your mood. (3) A strong immune system, physical growth and brain and cognitive function also rely on a healthy microbiome.

 

No wonder your gut is often referred to as your second brain.

 

How your microbiome develops

 

As soon as you’re conceived, your microbiome starts to develop. During your first 1,000 days of life, from conception until around your second birthday, your microbiome goes through incredible growth and lays down the foundation for the rest of your life.

 

During those first 1,000 days of life, factors such as how you’re born (vaginal or caesarean section), your mum’s diet and if you were breastfed or bottle-fed, impacts the diversity and health of your microbiome.

 

When your microbiome becomes unbalanced

 

An unbalanced microbiome is called dysbiosis. As an adult, dysbiosis can be caused by medications, stress, environment and diet. (4, 5)

 

In Western medicine, the importance of the microbiome to our health has come a long way since scientists could begin studying microbes, thanks to the invention of the microscope in the 16th century. Subsequent and ongoing research about the microbiome continues to provide evidence on its incredible impact on health and disease.

 

Research suggests dysbiosis may contribute to:

 

  • cognitive conditions including migraine and depression
  • autoimmune diseases including type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis
  • gastrointestinal conditions including inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel disease. (2, 6)

 

Bridging the gap between Eastern and Western medicine

 

If gut health, microbiome and the gut-brain axis seem like the latest health ‘buzz’ words, you’d be forgiven if you thought the microbiome is only a fairly recent discovery. But the understanding that a healthy gut is important for our overall health isn’t a new concept.

 

The most influential book of Traditional Chinese Medicine is the Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经), commonly known as The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine. This ancient text dates back somewhere between 2600 BC and 300 BC and its concepts and theories form the foundation of TCM still practiced today. In TCM, everything in the body is interconnected and dependent on one another. If one system is out of balance, like your microbiome, it creates an imbalance throughout your body.

 

Around the year 350 AD, a Chinese physician named Ge Hong(葛洪)  treated patients with a treatment called yellow soup. This yellow soup was made from a healthy person’s stool and given to people suffering from severe diarrhea and acute food poisoning (7) (best not to think about how this yellow soup was administered).

 

Although this was long before the existence of microbes was confirmed, Ge Hong’s treatment probably helped to restore the patients’ microbiomes, similar to an emerging practice in Western medicine called faecal microbiota transplant (FMT).

 

In 1958 – nearly 1,600 years later – the first account of FMT performed in Western medicine was published. Since then, further evidence has been published about the success of FMT to treat infections from the bacteria Clostridium difficile. Just like Ge Hong all those years ago, FMT works to transfer healthy bacteria into the gut of a person with dysbiosis.

 

We can also trace knowledge of gut health back even further to the Greek physician Hippocrates. Born around 460 BC, Hippocrates is often referred to as the father of medicine and is attributed to the famous saying “all disease begins in the gut’. Although we now know not all diseases are caused by our gut, Hippocrates was definitely onto something.

 

Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine use different languages to describe the relationship between health and illness, and approach wellness from a different perspective. It’s our knowledge of both disciplines of medicine, and how we use that knowledge to help women with migraine, that makes our approach to migraine unique.

 

Inflammation and brain health

 

Inflammation is triggered when microorganisms are found in places in the body where they shouldn’t be. When you experience inflammation anywhere in the body, immune cells called cytokines are released. It’s these cytokines that contribute towards inflammation and can cause pain. (8)

 

Cells within your gut create a barrier between what’s inside your gut, and what gets absorbed into your bloodstream. When your microbiome is unbalanced and your gut needs a bit of TLC, this defense is weakened, and toxins and bacteria can leak into your body.

 

This can cause inflammation throughout your entire body, and evidence suggests inflammation can contribute to migraine disease. Through a cascade of events, nerve cells, blood vessels and our immune system all contribute to migraine headache, and with repeated attacks, this ongoing inflammation can cause changes to your brain neurons. (9)


According to TCM, one imbalance that can cause migraine is an inflammation of the liver. This is called Liver Fire (“gan huo”, 干活). Your liver is responsible for the flow of qi throughout your body and stress, diet and chronic illness can cause your liver to become sluggish and Liver Qi stagnation. Because Qi flows upwards this stagnation can cause migraine.


As we work with you to restore your microbiome, we help decrease inflammation throughout your body and help improve migraine pain. We also help improve the movement of qi.

 

Restoring balance in your body  


Recommending personalised functional foods and teas is the foundation of our approach to managing migraine. We develop your functional food lists based on TCM and findings from Western scientific papers to rebalance your microbiome.

 

For example, using TCM knowledge, we can identify imbalances related to wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness and fire. These six agents can cause illness and disease when they’re in excess of what your body needs. The five elements – water, wood, fire, earth and metal – are also fundamental TCM concepts important for your health.

 

In TCM, Qi is the vital energy needed to maintain health and wellbeing, maintained through the balance of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are forces, or energy, which are opposite yet interdependent. Night is Yin and day is Yang. Night and day are different, yet one can’t exist without the other. Cold is Yin and hot is Yang; it’s impossible to have one without the other.

 

Organs and systems balance each other through Yin and Yang. Your spleen is Yin, your stomach Yang; your lungs are Yin, your large intestines Yang. They continually rebalance each other and create an abundance of Qi.

 

We use functional foods and teas to help restore Yin and Yang and create Qi. If you have an imbalance of excess Yin, we recommend foods to increase Yang, such as walnuts, ginger and coconut. To help rebalance an excess of Yang, we recommend foods such as watermelon, grapefruit, cabbage and cucumbers, which are Yin.


We know many people are unfamiliar with TCM. That’s why we track your progress daily using our online tracker. The causes of migraine are complex, and imbalances are dynamic and influenced by factors such as your age and where you live. We continue to discover your unique imbalances and we work closely with you and answer any questions you have during your time with us.


Using a Western approach, functional foods and teas help to rebalance your microbiome, increasing the diversity of macronutrients – carbohydrates, fats and proteins – and micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – to restore balance to your gut and improve your health.

 

Rebalancing your gut can help treat the underlying cause of many illnesses, including migraine. Functional foods improve the diversity of your microbes and can help put you back in control of your health and reach the full potential you so deserve.

Written by Medical Writer Sarah Cahill

 

References

 

1. Gut Microbe to Brain Signaling: What Happens in Vagus

2. The role of the microbiome for human health: from basic science to clinical application

3. Neurotransmitter modulation by the gut microbiota

4. Effects of Psychological, Environmental and Physical Stressors on the Gut Microbiota

5. Stress effects on the body

6. Gut-brain Axis and migraine headache: a comprehensive review

7. History of Fecal Transplant

8. Cytokines, Inflammation and Pain

9. Causes of Migraine


DISCLAIMER: Information on this website is provided as general information only about our service and approach to migraine management. It isn’t intended as medical advice or diagnosis, and shouldn’t be relied on as a substitute for medical advice from a health professional.

Any recommendations of functional foods and teas and quantities are also for general information only. Some functional foods and teas mentioned on the website have contraindications and should only be consumed following advice from a Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner.

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