Catch up on our 3-part series!
In the final segment of our series on inflammation and disease, we’re going to explore the inner workings of our brain and the complex relationship we have with our immune cells. But let’s start with an important lesson in anatomy: the Blood-Brain Barrier.
The Brain’s First Line of Defense
We can all agree that our brain is a very important organ. Your brain is responsible for directing nearly all the activity in our body. It’s the super-conductor of electrical messages that relay complex information about how your body performs and who you are as a person. For an organ that only makes up about 2% of our body weight, it consumes a fifth of the oxygen you breathe and of the energy you consume. In turn, this energy is converted into a diverse range of chemical reactions that dictate your behavior and trickle down into the cellular responses you use to live.
Although your brain controls just about everything you do, it has quite a bit of help from your nervous system. Starting with the nerves that branch from the brain down the spinal column, your nervous system reaches from the very tips of your fingers to the ends of your toes. These nerves ensure that chemical and electrical messages arrive exactly where they are intended. And with record speed!
You can imagine that protecting the brain is our body’s first and foremost effort. If issues arise in the brain, you can expect them to affect the rest of the body. Over time, we’ve developed very interesting and innovative ways to naturally protect our most important organ. The Blood-Brain Barrier is an example of just that.
The Blood-Brain Barrier – or BBB, as it’s so lovingly referred to - is a protective barrier of endothelial cells (the same type of cells lining our digestive tract) that surrounds the blood capillaries in our brain. This natural shield prevents most things from passing into the spinal fluid and does an incredible job of keeping pathogens out. Very few pathogens are known to be able to pass the BBB. It’s one of our brain’s best defenses against invasive microbes.
But if breached, pathogens and toxic compounds can penetrate the brain. This can cause swelling in the brain. Keeping the BBB intact prevents illness and disease – so what can compromise its integrity?
Inflammation and the Brain
Over the course of our series, we’ve discussed the impact systemic inflammation has on our overall health – and how it can originate in the gut. We also learned how leaky gut syndrome can expose our bloodstream to microbes and transport them where they don’t belong. The same microbes that help our immune system do what it does best in the gut, end up hurting how well it performs. And as systemic inflammation builds in our system - and the microbes keep jumping the gate into our blood – something else happens.
The inflammation that’s meant to protect us and help us heal, accidentally starts breaking us down from the inside out.
In order to fight pathogens, our immune cells secrete a number of toxic compounds used to degrade microbial cells and digest them. Systemic inflammation is essentially an over-exaggerated immune response that has difficulty being controlled. Those same toxic compounds don’t exactly discriminate between friend or foe. They have a bad habit of digesting just about anything that gets in their way, including our cells. And when our cells get damaged, they tend to produce distress signals.
Some of these signals, known as radical oxygen species and prostanoids, are also produced by our own immune cells. And although they’re meant to wave down flags for help, they can have detrimental effects to surrounding cells if too much accumulates.
Those effects translate to changing the health and function of the endothelial cells in our BBB shield. It might mean causing space between the cells for pathogens to break through. It might cause damage to our endothelial cells themselves. It might even mean degrading the protective slippery-coating on the outside of the cells lining the BBB that keeps pathogens from sticking to them. And though microbes are a normal part of our bodies, having them in our brain is less than favorable.
While communication between our gut microbes and the brain is nothing new (you might already be aware of the interesting and often beneficial relationship of the gut-brain axis), if the BBB becomes compromised - it’s not just messages that are being transported. Some of those gut microbes might be walking their way up the Vagus nerve and into your brain.
Scientists have recorded a number of ways our BBB can be compromised from systemic inflammation. And just as we learned how our gut microbes break through gaps in our gut lining or meander up the gut-brain axis – suddenly those same microbes have a new path into the brain.
Microbes and Disease
When breached, microbes can wreak havoc on our brains. Although conventional infections may occur – like meningitis – in some cases more chronic diseases can manifest. Researchers have linked several neurological diseases to inflammation and disruptions of the gut microbiome. Chronic disorders like depression, Parkinson’s disease, Alzhemier’s, and autism disorder are now hypothesized to have a connection to gut health.
It’s not just the microbes themselves that can inflict harm. In the digestive tract, the normal by-products and metabolites of our gut microbes are contained. Other times, natural competition between microbes in the gut ecosystem keeps the levels of toxins secreted pretty low. But outside of the gut, the competition is less fierce and those levels change. The commensal microbes that helped us digest food in our gut may be producing high levels of harmful compounds in our brain. When they come in contact with our brain cells, it can cause serious damage and inflammation. And we all know now how inflammation can sometimes perpetuate more harm than good.
At Viome, our goal isn’t just to fight the development of chronic disease. We stand to further investigate the relationship between disease and our gut – and to educate you on what we’re learning. We are constantly talking about scientific research and the connections scientists are uncovering. But remember – it’s never as simple as you think. There is so much about the world around us we don’t understand. And that includes the world inside us as well!
Even though it’s simplified – a great deal – we hope that this series has shed a little light on the impact of our gut health on inflammation and the rest of the body. This complex relationship is exactly why Viome offers more than just gut health assessments. Our goal is to understand the global impact of the gut microbiome, and our Health Intelligence Test is the most comprehensive assessment on the market.
If you liked learning something new in this series, step up your game and learn something new about yourself. Our Health Intelligence service provides a digital snapshot of your health and allows you to get curious about what’s going on inside you. And best of all, learn how your health measures up – and what you can do to improve it.
How Viome’s Immune System Health score works
Because Viome provides tools to Measure your body’s unique biology on a molecular level, you’re able to check in with your body and immune response, find out how efficiently your body is operating. With your health scores, you see the areas that need attention and can support them with our precise nutritional recommendations to help regain optimal health and boost immunity.
Viome’s Health Intelligence™ measures inflammatory activity in both your body’s systems (with a blood sample) and your microbiome (with a stool sample). The Human Gene Expression™ (blood) analysis reveals cellular pathways related to acute or low-grade inflammation, while the Gut Intelligence™ analysis can reveal microbial or GI factors, including your gut lining health.
If your Immune System Health score is not optimal, it means that your immune system's preparedness for invading bacteria or viruses needs support. We may recommend specific foods or Precision Supplements™ that address harmful microbial activities, stimulate anti-inflammatory nutrients (like the short-chain fatty acids produced by the gut microbiome), or suppress pro-inflammatory molecules or allergy-related reactions in the body.
Your Immune System Health score is calculated using several different Functional Health Scores, all of which have influence over the levels of immune response in your body:
Inflammatory Activity to measure microbial activity that contribute to or reflect inflammation in your gut environment,
Cellular Stress to measure pathway activities that either lead to or are reflective of cellular stress, damage, and dysfunction,
Immune System Activation to measure whether or not your immune system is over or under-functioning, and
Gut Lining Health to measure the health of the mucosal layer that protects your gut.
All these scores and over 25 more are included with our Health Intelligence. Begin your journey to better health, wellness, and immunity today!
The information on the Viome website is provided for informational purposes only and with the understanding that Viome is not engaged in rendering medical advice or recommendations. Viome provides this educational information to share the exciting developments being reported in the scientific literature about the human microbiome and your health. Viome products are not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.