The role of Gut Health in Treating Substance Abuse
The expression “gut feeling” refers to the sense of intuition that we sometimes experience prior to making decisions, and while we might be speaking in metaphors, the gut is responsible for more of our behavior that we might realize. The health of our gut is one of the most foundational aspects of our well-being and is responsible for a wide range of functions that are critical to maintaining our mental health including the production of the vast majority of our body’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with a bright, happy, glass is half-full outlook on life. In the case of addiction gut health may be one of the missing elements involved in identifying what lies at the root of someone’ struggles to overcome addiction.
Addiction can be seen as a complex disorder that affects the mind, body, and spirit and there is a tendency to want to separate these elements when in actuality there is an interconnectedness that exists between these seemingly separate components of our health. Understanding how the health or the gut plays a role in the health of our minds has become the topic of recent research in the integrative mental health space and what is being learned and utilized to help correct mental health disorders can have useful application in the treatment of substance abuse disorders as well. As a trend towards a functional medicine approach that looks at the body and mind as a series of interrelated systems is beginning to emerge so are holistic drug treatment programs that are starting to adopt practices that address whole body health, and work to correct underlying imbalances in the body, and treat dysfunction in the gut.
Dysfunction in the gut including imbalanced gut flora can cause a range of issues that affect the health of the mind and body. The trillions of microbes that inhabit our guts are responsible for a number of functions that are crucial to maintaining mental health. Gut flora help produce a wide range of neurotransmitters and hormones that interact with receptor sites in the brain allowing us to experience normal mood states. When this flora becomes imbalanced due to exposure to parasites of the overgrowth of yeast or fungi it can have a negative impact on our mind and body, which can lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and addiction.
The gut even has it’s own nervous system that functions quasi autonomously yet makes up part of the central nervous system. The enteric nervous system (the gut nervous system) is made up of a hundred million neurons and is tied to our central nervous system, which helps regulate our body’s internal stress response. Dysfunction in the gut sends signals to the autonomic nervous system which can trigger our bodies internal stress mechanisms which can create a state of underlying tension and anxiety. This type of hidden internal stress could be a potential relapse trigger as stress has been shown to increase the likelihood of relapse.
Gut health also has a significant impact on immune modulation and an essential factor in regulating inflammation in the body. The vast majority of our immune system is located in our guts, and our microflora helps keep our immune system balanced. Leaky gut, a condition where the gut lining becomes more permeable allowing larger undigested protein molecules to pass through into the body causing a triggering a response from the immune system which thinks the body is under attack. The resulting increase of inflammatory cytokines produced by the immune system has been linked to inflammation in the brain (neuroinflammation) and has been associated with many mood disorders, including substance abuse.
Nutrients absorbed by our digestive system provide the nutrients needed to nourish our minds and to provide the raw ingredients for the neurotransmitters that allow us to think and feel normal. Dysfunction is the gut can cause malabsorption which over time can lead to deficiencies in vital nutrients that are required for maintaining the health of the brain and body. Amino acids that are broken down from digested proteins are necessary to produce critical neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin which are required for normal mood states and brain function.
Substance abuse disorders remain a difficult problem to treat with a low success rate and high rate of relapse for those who struggle to overcome them. Substance abuse is a significant problem for the United States with an estimated cost to society of 740 billion dollars a year, not to mention the countless lives lost or affected by the disease. Integrative drug rehab programs are beginning to emerge as there is a shift towards a more comprehensive model of care that examine the underlying physiological conditions that play a role in addiction. The interconnectedness of the mind and body is an essential element of understanding addiction, and the health of the gut is one of the most foundational components of the health or both our mind and bodies. Maybe there’s more to a “gut feeling” than we thought.