The Impact of Gut Health on the Brain and What This Means for Athletes

Athletes are prone to brain injuries, but what you may not know is that physical trauma is not the only culprit for an increased risk of head injuries in the sports industry. What’s going on in your gut can also make you more prone to traumatic brain injuries, as well as worsen symptoms. Dr. Stephanie Canestraro is a chiropractor and Functional Medicine doctor who works with high-performing athletes, helping them heal their guts to optimize performance and mitigate injuries at her Vagus Clinic based in Toronto. Recently Dr.Canestraro was a guest on JOGA “Earn Your Edge” IG Live series and spoke with JOGA founder Jana Webb, sharing with us all things gut and brain health and what the connection between the two means for athletes.

Dr. Stephanie first began looking at the importance of gut health early on in her chiropractic career because of her own health struggles. After suffering from intense gastrointestinal symptoms, panic attacks, and stroke-like symptoms and increasingly getting worse with no diagnosis, Dr. Stephanie finally learned that the root of all her problems was her gut. She learned that Celiac Disease, a lack of nutrient absorption, and leaky gut were causing her body to produce a full-blown inflammatory nervous system attack, and once addressing what was going on inside, her symptoms drastically improved. Noticing that many athletes were also experiencing similar symptom patterns, Dr. Stephanie began applying what she learned about the gut-brain connection with the players she works with.

In her practice, Dr. Stephanie sees many professional athletes suffering from severe anxiety and chronic intestinal symptoms like diarrhea and bloating. She also has noticed that many retired athletes develop chronic diseases post-career. This all happens because of the health of the gut. Leaky gut and nutritional deficiencies are so common with athletes because they are always traveling and eating foods that may not be the best for them, such as loading up on carbs before a game. Athletes work in busy, stressful environments that cause them to frequently live in the sympathetic nervous system state. On top of this, athletes are encouraged to overuse painkillers, have higher levels of toxin exposure from flying a lot, and their circadian rhythms are off from inconsistent, unhealthy sleep patterns. All of these factors make for the perfect breeding ground for an unhealthy gut, which almost always leads to more serious health problems.

You may think that what you’re doing off-season or before or after a game doesn’t matter much, but everything is connected, whether it be performance, health, diet, or lifestyle. Nothing in the body is isolated. Moreover, most diseases and health issues can be traced back to the gut.

The gut has a microbiome collection of bacteria, parasites, and yeast. We are actually made up of more bacteria DNA than human DNA! For a gut to be healthy, you want diversity in the gut microbiome. The more diversity, the more calm and healthy a person will be overall. However, a lot of what we do, how stressed we are, and what we eat can cause imbalances in bacteria or parasites in the gut. This is when a person becomes more prone to disease and when athletes become more sensitive to the long-term effects of brain injury.

Every bacteria gives off metabolites that the body has to deal with. These metabolites could either do something good or something bad, so it’s important that we look at if there is an imbalance of bacterial overgrowth in the gut. When there are problems in the gut, it can drive you into the sympathetic nervous system, putting you into a state of stress. Furthermore, when the gut lining is compromised, such as with leaky gut syndrome, harmful bacteria and toxins can enter the bloodstream and cross the blood-brain barrier. These toxins don’t always have to originate in the gut either. When someone experiences brain trauma, chemicals are released from the trauma, affecting the gut lining and amplifying this vicious cycle. This is why when a person has a traumatic brain injury, it can always be assumed that they also probably have a leaky gut.

When talking about gut and brain health, it’s important to look at the vagus nerve because it provides a direct connection from the gut to the brain and acts like a highway for metabolites to travel to the brain. The vagus nerve is the 10th and longest cranial nerve and is responsible for innervating almost every organ in the body. The vagus nerve is the parasympathetic side of the nervous system, aka your rest and digest response. Therefore, when lifestyle factors and problems in the gut drive you into the sympathetic nervous system, putting you in a state of stress, the vagus nerve can be used to offset this.

At the Vagus Clinic, Dr. Stephanie assists athletes in identifying problems in the gut that may be damaging their health and making them more susceptible to brain injuries. By getting rid of parasites, strengthening good microbiome, and creating a healthier environment for good bacteria to flourish, athletes can better protect their brains. Along with fixing diet and clearing out toxins, you can also bring the body back into a homeostasis state by activating the vagus nerve. In JOGA, we do this by using specialized breathing techniques. Dr. Stephanie also recommends turning on the vagus nerve by using supplements and different techniques like acupuncture, using a toothpick to tap pressure points like the tragus or fibular head, humming, gargling, gagging, binaural beats, red light, cold showers, and eye gazing. In understanding the role the gut plays in brain health and how to train the vagus nerve to increase wellbeing, we are not only helping athletes perform better, but also improving longevity and protecting overall health in the long run.