Part of being human is accepting the fact that as much as we’d like to be, we aren’t indestructible. Sometimes we get injured or hurt. And when that injury happens to our heads — which is known as a traumatic brain injury, or a TBI — it can be especially scary. Falls, firearm injuries, auto crashes, sports injuries, and assaults are just a few of the main causes of traumatic brain injuries; and depending on the severity of the injury, a person can face health problems and side effects that last anywhere from a few days to years. TBI’s are responsible for 2 million emergency room visits and 50,000 deaths each year.
I myself had a TBI when I was 19 years old. I was riding a racing bike right after a rainstorm, and had cut into a parking lot to turn around. The last thing I remember was seeing some rocks on the pavement in front of me, and then the next thing I know I’m waking up in the ER feeling disoriented with a major headache. I had somehow fallen off the bike, catapulted forward, hitting the ground with my head, scraping the entire right side of my face, and injuring my shoulder and hip with the landing. Luckily, I was wearing a helmet, which probably saved my life, as did the person who called for an ambulance. However, the headaches persisted for a month after the accident. Little did I know that an event like that can trigger an opening of the floodgates, causing leaky gut, as well as a leaky blood brain barrier.
In recent years, we’ve started to discover and research ways to help people recover more quickly and efficiently from TBIs. I wish I had the knowledge I have now when I suffered my own TBI. And as the Happy Gut doctor, one avenue of research in particular caught my eye. Why? Because it has everything to do with the gut.
The Surprising Connection Between the Gut and TBIs
In recent years, research has shown that one of the first things that happens in the body after a TBI is a major disruption in the intestinal barrier function. That might seem strange at first, but the truth is that the gut and brain are intricately connected and communicate back and forth constantly, a bidirectional relationship that is often referred to as the gut-brain axis. And there’s actually a “telephone wire” between the gut and the brain known as the vagus nerve.
The gut-brain axis is modulated by the longest nerve in the body, called the vagus nerve, which is the main regulator of our parasympathetic “rest and digest” autonomic nervous system and plays a major role in regulating intestinal permeability and the activity of the GI tract. When you suffer a TBI, it affects the vagus nerve, causing it to malfunction and go a little haywire. In as little as 30 minutes, this can cause increased permeability with those tight junctions (the velcro-like connections between the cells that line the intestines) becoming defective.
If “increased intestinal permeability” and “defective tight junctions” sound like familiar terms to you, that’s because they are the hallmarks of a leaky gut, a condition I write a lot about. When this post-TBI leaky gut sets it, it means that toxins, proteins, and bacteria start slipping through the gut lining and into the bloodstream where they can cause a pro-inflammatory environment.
The craziest thing? This all happens in a matter of hours. For example, one study showed that intestinal permeability significantly increased within 6 hours after a TBI. In another study, researchers tested the urine of those with a recent TBI and found evidence that the brian injury induced gaps in tight junctions, leading to different metabolites in the urine.
A TBI is like an express lane to a leaky gut.
And eventually if the leaky gut goes untreated, it can lead to a compromised intestinal mucosa, gut dysbiosis, a breakdown of the blood brain barrier (which is the mechanism that keeps inflammatory triggers out of the brain) and even immune system dysfunction, since 70% immune system is found in the gut. Not to mention, a malfunctioning vagus nerve can sabotage digestion itself (the vagus nerve is the main regulator of the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system, after all). Without good vagal tone, the secretion of digestive enzymes is inhibited and other problems can arise, like dysbiosis, SIBO, and all the gut symptoms — like bloating, constipation, reflux, and diarrhea — that often come with them.
A New Way of Looking at Leaky Gut
When I learned about this link between brain injuries and leaky gut, it was a huge “Aha!” moment for me. I’ve seen many patients throughout the years who suffered from digestive issues after a brain injury, and many of their doctors told them it was “just stress” or “unrelated.” Now we know that that’s not the case and this relationship between leaky gut and TBIs doesn’t just exist, it’s a critical issue to address when healing from a brain injury.
The research on TBIs and leaky gut gives us a new perspective on leaky gut itself.
Leaky gut was always thought of as something that develops slowly over months or years. Previously, we assumed it was only caused by lifestyle factors like antibiotics, a poor diet filled with processed foods and other inflammatory substances, over the counter and prescription medications like steroids and birth control, and alcohol. It could also be caused by acute gastroenteritis or traveler’s diarrhea. And while these factors STILL contribute to leaky gut, we know they aren’t the ONLY factors that can cause it. Clearly, short-term injury and vagal nerve dysfunction can also contribute to this condition.
A New Perspective on Healing Leaky Gut
The good news is that by understanding more about the cause of leaky gut, we can expand our strategies to heal, starting with improving vagal function since clearly the vagus nerve is intricately connected to intestinal permeability.
5 Ways to Improve Vagal Function
1. Breathwork: “The 4-7-8 Breath”
Slow, methodical breathing is one great way to activate the vagus nerve and the “rest and digest” nervous system. To try it out, get into a comfortable seated position with your feet on the floor or crossed legged while sitting on a cushion for back and hip support, then just inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your inhale for 7 seconds, and then exhale audibly through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this 5 times in a row, a few times a day. The best thing about the 4-7-8 breath is that you can do it anywhere, anytime — when you’re driving, at work, in a meeting (well, I guess it depends on what type of meeting…LOL), or watching TV. But in reality, I’m really big on focused attention. So, if you’re going to do it, take a pause, and not only breathe physically, but also breathe space into your day by honoring this practice without distractions.
The vagus nerve runs from the base of your brain, down your neck, and then down into your body where it intersects every major organ. In your throat, it’s connected to the muscles near your vocal cords, which means that gargling is one of the easiest ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. Research studies have shown that gargling can increase vagal tone, which is a measure of vagal nerve health. Gargle for about 60 to 90 seconds twice daily until you get tears in your eye. The tears let you know that you’ve gargled for long enough to activate and fire the vagus nerve.
3. Humming | Singing | Chanting
For the same reasons as gargling, humming, singing, and chanting can also stimulate the vagus nerve in a healthy way. Studies are even exploring specific chants, such as the “Ohm” chant used in yoga for their specific vagal nerve benefits. Take a deep breath in, hold for 1 second, then exhale while chanting “Ohm” for as long as you can until all the air is squeezed out of your lungs, using your abdominal muscles to push your belly button towards your back. Repeat 3 times.
4. Cold Showers | Splash of Cold Water on Face
Exposing your body to extreme cold for a short period of time is one of my favorite ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. When your body adjusts to cold temperatures, it triggers the “rest and digest” nervous system and acts like exercise for your vagus nerve. This is one of the main theories behind the benefits of the popular Wim Hof method, which involves cold exposure and resiliency training. The Wim Hof Method involves 30 cycles of deep breathing, inhaling through the nose, exhaling through the mouth, then holding your breath for as long as you can. You can do several rounds of 30 breaths, then jump in an ice cold bath (literally, add ice cubes to a bath) or a cold shower. It’s THE BEST WAY to wake up.
5. Vagal Nerve Stimulation Devices
Another interesting option is a vagus nerve stimulation device. The use of these devices is still in their infancy, but they are already being used for those with seizure disorders that don’t respond to other therapies. These devices are surgically implanted, usually in the neck area, and deliver an electrical current that stimulates the vagus nerve. In the future, I think we’ll see a lot of developments in this area, especially when it comes to vagus nerve malfunction after TBI’s! And non-invasive vagal nerve stimulation devices that can be self-administered, like the gammaCore.
Foods That Heal Leaky Gut + Boost Brain Function
Clearly, we need to expand our thinking when it comes to the causes and treatments for leaky gut. That said, as the Happy Gut doctor I’d be remiss if I didn’t also talk about food. At the end of the day, food is the foundation of health and can help you heal not only your gut but your brain as well.
1. Wild Salmon
If I had to name just one superfood for brain and gut health, it would have to be wild salmon. Salmon is high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats; and since our brains are nearly 60 percent fat, it makes sense that we’d need healthy fats for optimal brain health. Omega-3’s also help maintain a healthy gut lining and promote easy, effortless bowel movements. Wild salmon is also rich in antioxidants, vitamin A, and vitamin D.
Pomegranates aren’t something most of us eat regularly, but they contain a type of prebiotic, otherwise known as polyphenols — ellagic acid and punicalagin — that helps stabilize the ecosystem of the mucus layer in the gut. Studies have shown that pomegranate can help boost the populations of beneficial bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus.
As you can probably guess from their vibrant color, blueberries are chock full of antioxidants. But what you might not know is the specific antioxidants in blueberries have shown an ability to target areas of the brain that boost intelligence and prevent cognitive decline. Blueberries are also rich in prebiotic fiber that helps power your good gut bugs to produce anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids that improve gut barrier function, as well as boost memory and focus.
Like salmon, walnuts are also full of omega-3s; specifically, a plant-based omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALAs have known anti-inflammatory properties and have also been shown to positively influence the gut microbiome as well as brain health.
5. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are a great source of soluble fiber, which is what allows them to absorb water and swell up when left to soak overnight. Eating chia seeds feeds your gut bacteria, allowing your microbiome to remain diverse and your digestion to stay regular. You can sprinkle chia seeds on a salad or soup or add them to smoothies or overnight oats. You can also soak chia seeds overnight in macadamia milk (or other nut milk) with a teaspoon of vanilla extract to make a chia seed pudding. Chia seeds are also rich in linoleic (17-26%) and linolenic acids (50-57%) — precursors to omega-3 fatty acids — that can be released to nourish your gut, brain and body by grinding the chia seeds first before adding them to your recipes.
As we continue to learn more about the connection between leaky gut and the side effects of brain injuries, we’ll continue to discover new ways to prevent, treat, and recover from both. This area of study is the perfect example of Eastern and Western medicine finally coming together in a research-backed way to deliver fully comprehensive, state-of-the-art healthcare.