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It’s MS Awareness Week, with this year’s theme concentrating on mental health and multiple sclerosis. In this blog, you’ll discover the effect of one aspect of mental health, stress, on MS and how your gut could connect the two.
Over 7000 people in the UK are diagnosed with MS every year, and its incidence in women is rising. It’s an autoimmune disease, where the immune system starts to attack parts of the body – in this case, the fatty covering of the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. MS is usually an episodic disease, with symptoms subsiding between attacks.
Why the body should attack itself in this way is unclear, but it’s likely to be down to a combination of factors.
One of the most important factors regulating your immune system is your gut; more specifically, the collection of microbes in your gut known as your microbiome. These bugs release a host of substances which carry messages all around your body. In other words, your microbiome doesn’t simply affect how well your digestive system functions, but the bugs in your gut teach your immune system how to distinguish between friends and enemies. If this instruction goes awry, it’s easy to see how your immune system would become confused.
Your gut bacteria have another important job – keeping the lining of your gut healthy. It’s a semi-permeable membrane designed to allow nutrients and other useful substances into your body while keeping dangerous substances out. If the lining becomes inflamed it can lose its integrity. If this happens, substances meant to remain inside your gut like waste products, dangerous toxins and bacteria from your microbiome can pass through into your bloodstream. This situation is called leaky gut, and it leads to widespread inflammation, putting the immune system on red alert. If your immune system is triggered over and over again it can become less selective than it should be, attacking innocent parts of your body.
Inflammatory substances allowed through a permeable gut lining can damage cells of the central nervous system. In studies, specific gut bacteria producing inflammatory molecules were present in high numbers in MS patients 1.
Although everyone is different, many studies have found stress can increase the likelihood of developing MS. One study found that a stressful life event like a divorce or an accident could increase MS risk by as much as 30% 2. This risk seemed to disproportionately affect women.
Stress has also been associated with increased relapses in MS. Other studies, however, have not found a link, so it does depend on the individual person, and it may be connected with the person’s perception of stress rather than the actual level of stress.
But the link between stress and MS makes sense because if you’ve ever experienced nerves before an important meeting, presentation or exam you’ll recognise the instant effect stress has on your digestive system.
This communication between your gut and your brain is called the gut/brain axis, and it works in both directions. Not only does your brain talk to your gut, causing butterflies in your stomach before an important event, but your gut talks to your brain, too. A complex system of nerves links the two.
Research has shown stress affects the types and quantities of bacteria living in the gut microbiome, in turn adversely affecting the immune system. Your brain, when you’re stressed, sends messages down nerves to your gut, altering its internal environment and favouring those species of bacteria releasing inflammatory molecules.
And since your gut plays such a big role in MS, anything adversely affecting your digestive system could therefore increase the likelihood of being affected by the disease.
Functional Medicine practitioners do seem a little obsessed with the gut, but it’s for good reason. This is because Functional Medicine always aims to find the causes of ill-health so they can be put right, rather than looking for remedies to mask the symptoms.
Functional testing can be really useful for pinpointing what’s going wrong in your gut, for example establishing the health of your microbiome or detecting leaky gut.
The influence of your gut on your health is incredibly wide-ranging. Healing the gut by re-establishing a healthy bacterial population in the microbiome and repairing a damaged gut lining will reduce chronic inflammation, making nerve damage less likely.
Would you like natural support for your stress levels and your MS? Then book a free 15-minute discovery call to see if Functional Medicine is for you.
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