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What I Learned: The Gut-Skin-Brain Connection

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Last week I went to a lecture program at Ellwood Thompson’s hosted by the Richmond Integrative Psychiatric & Nutrition Services, a functional medicine practice. The topic was the Gut-Skin-Brain Connection, and although I’m still thirsty to learn more about the nitty gritty science of it all, I left with a great general understanding of just how interrelated our bodily systems are. Everything that I learned applies to our overall health and wellness, which of course includes our skin health. I might have renamed the seminar something like “The Gut is King: Why your Digestion Affects Every Aspect of Your Health”! Regardless, today I’m happy to share the high points of what I learned and also make some parallels to Ayurveda.

1. Functional medicine addresses the root cause of your disease, condition, and/or imbalance rather than just treating symptoms. My reflection: Ayurveda is a system of functional medicine.

Most conventional medicine practitioners use their prescription pad as their primary means of treating and healing their patients. Now, don’t get it twisted, medication is absolutely necessary for certain conditions and people, and I do not judge anyone for taking medication that is vital to their health and well-being. I know that I wouldn’t be alive and thriving today if I weren’t on months and months of IV antibiotics (over 2 total years of IV antibiotic treatment in the past decade) to treat my chronic neurological Lyme disease. However, relying solely on medications without addressing the whole person is problematic. That’s when we get stuck in the trap of taking some medications to treat our primary symptoms, other meds to treat side effects, and none of the prescribers talk to each other. No thanks. Functional medicine is based on obtaining a full and detailed image of your health to understand how to address the root cause of your issues and addressing your symptoms. Functional medicine takes a more preventive, holistic approach to disease and focuses on viewing the person in the context of their lifestyle, environment, and genetics.

You don’t have to be a functional medicine doctor or nurse practitioner to appreciate this approach. In fact, I would argue that Ayurveda is a functional medicine practice. Just like functional medicine, Ayurveda takes a preventive, holistic approach, and when it comes to treating disease, it focuses on addressing the root cause of the imbalance within the context of your genetic makeup, or Prakruti (predominant dosha). Many Ayurvedic recommendations and rituals address lifestyle choices and your environment as an important element of healing.

Even if you don’t prescribe to an Ayurvedic model of health, everyone can get behind the idea of addressing the root cause and treating the whole person! 

2. In functional medicine, there are 3 elements of dysfunction in terms of your health. My reflection: Ayurveda agrees with all of these elements and adds even more.

The first element is your environment. Is your home a safe, loving environment or is it tumultuous and chaotic? What is the air and water quality like where you live? This also encompasses the toxins that are found in our foods and personal care products. Obviously this hits home for me & Bright Body! Finally, your environment also encompasses the side effects of the medications you are taking.

The second element is your lifestyle. Do you eat a Standard American Diet (AKA “S.A.D.”)? Do you make movement a consistent part of your life? What is your alcohol and drug consumption like? Are you glued to your devices? What is your stress level like and how do you manage it? What is your sleep like? I could go on, but you get the point!

The third and final element is genetics and refers to our predisposition to certain diseases and conditions. While we used to think that our genetics largely determine our destiny when it comes to chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease, we are beginning to understand that we do not have to express all of our genes, especially the ones that promote disease. Yes, it is possible to “turn off” certain, undesirable portions of our genetics through consistent, healthy lifestyle choices.

Ayurveda agrees with the importance of all these elements – Ayurveda views your environment as more than the functional medicine definition, and includes who you surround yourself with, what thoughts and emotions you experience and how you cope with them. Lifestyle encompasses many elements of dysfunction from Ayurveda, including diet, exercise, technology addiction, stress, sleep, and more. Ayurveda also emphasizes the importance of your sexuality, which would fall under the lifestyle umbrella. The idea of genetics is neatly understood in our predominant dosha (Prakruti). Although your primary dosha is most likely to go out of balance, the proper lifestyle can reduce this likelihood and manage your health proactively. A fourth dimension that Ayurveda would add is spiritual dysfunction, which does not necessarily mean prescribing to an organized religion. An example of spiritual dysfunction can be as simple as identifying with your thoughts rather than acknowledging yourself as the observer of those mental processes or believing that you can control 100% of your life and not learning how to let go.

3. In functional medicine, start with the gut. My reflection: Ayurveda asserts that all disease manifests itself in the gut, and we must balance our agni (digestive fire) first.

Let’s talk skin issues. Whether it’s eczema, psoriasis, hives, or acne, any health issue making itself known on the skin is an indication of imbalance in other areas of the body, including the gut. All of those conditions are a sign of inflammation in the body overall, including in the gut. Inflammation in our gastrointestinal system can lead to all sorts of issues with poor digestion, poor assimilation, and poor absorption of nutrients. What causes inflammation in the body and the gut? Toxins in your food & personal care products, poor water quality, unmanaged stress, insomnia, bad diet, sedentary lifestyle, a food allergy/sensitivity, hormone imbalance, and more. You’ll notice this sounds familiar – they’re all examples of the 3 elements of dysfunction we just went over. Treating the skin issues independent of what is going on internally is not the smartest possible approach.

Ayurveda believes that all disease makes itself known through the gut, even if we don’t notice. Just like functional medicine, Ayurveda asserts that inflammatory conditions in the skin are a sign of inflammation in the body, especially in the gut. While of course both functional medicine and Ayurveda have topical recommendations for skin issues, both modalities also recognize the importance of treating inflammation internally. All Ayurvedic recommendations are rooted in the “agni-first” or “digestion-first” mentality. Most of the time, our doshic imbalance is the same as our agni imbalance, but when it isn’t, you always treat the agni first before addressing your doshic imbalance (Vikruti).

4. Functional medicine says that one of the biggest ways that our digestive health is affected is through our gut microbiome. My reflection: this concept is closely mirrored by the idea of life force (prana) and a balanced bodily energy (sattva guna).

Our bodies are more bacteria cells than they are human cells. We have a balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria all over our bodies, including the skin, mouth, gut, eyes, ears, vaginal flora, and more. There are 2-5 pounds of bacteria in the gut microbiome alone. The health of the gut microbiome is crucial to maintaining healthy digestion and your health overall – 70% of our immune system lies in the gut and most of our serotonin (happy-making neurotransmitter) is actually produced in the gut. The balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome is affected by all of the usual suspects, and can cause something called “leaky gut.” You see, the lining of our gut is only one cell thick, and when our microbiome (among other things) is out of whack, compounds that should not make their way directly in the bloodstream get there anyway because the gut is literally leaking its contents into the bloodstream. Leaky gut leads to food sensitivities, an overactive and depleted immune system, poor nutrient absorption, systemic inflammation, and more.

While Ayurveda doesn’t have a specific word for the microbiome, it does emphasize the importance of caring for your prana, or life force, and aspiring to live as much as possible in a sattvic, or peaceful/balanced state. Fresh, local, whole, organic foods are rich in prana, and foods are further classified by their energetic effects on the body and gut. Rajasic foods are energizing and jazz you up, tamasic foods are lethargy-inducing and calm you down, while sattvic foods are easy to digest and leave your body and mind in a calm, balanced state. From a conventional perspective, foods that are both sattvic and full of prana are nourishing for the microbiome. Excessive consumption of tamasic and rajasic foods lacking prana is depleting for the microbiome. 

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I hope that you learned something new! Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions you might have.

Until next time,

Gabi Day

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