The Gut-Brain Axis is the information highway that connects the digestive tract with our brain and our brain with our gut. The importance of this highway cannot be overstated. In this podcast, Dr. Valerie LaRosa explains the different ways that our microbiome can be impacted and the effect it has on brain health, specifically neuro-inflammation. Dr. LaRosa is a naturopathic physician with many years of experience who focuses on seeing kids with disabilities.
It is quite impossible to optimize brain activity in the absence of a diverse and healthy gut microbiome. This Gut Brain Axis drives focus, regulation, attention, moods and behavior. Regardless of whether your child’s diagnosis is Autism, ADHD, or Down Syndrome, the primary path is to optimize the microbiome in the gut. The strategies that can affect these changes are simple. They take time, and it is a marathon not a sprint, but the change is slow and sure.
Types of dysfunction
Dr. LaRosa differentiates between two types of microbial dysfunction:
Infection is an attack or colonization by bacteria or viruses that are external to your body. They attack, the immune system responds, and you might get a fever, or a runny nose. This is the inflammation response.
Dysbiosis has to do with balance between the good guys and the bad guys that are already in your child’s gut. For example, Candida. Did you know that we are all expected to have some levels of this “commensal” fungus? But when its growth is unchecked, this can manifest as yeast infections, thrush and so on…
What can you do now to optimize the gut-brain axis?
There are many ways to start optimizing the gut health. But in this podcast, Dr. LaRosa talks about bringing more diversity to the gut bacteria. How do you do this?
- Get exposure to non-chemical treated soil, that means: play in the dirt, do gardening, etc.
- Eat organic and local produce
- Be wary of consuming too many antibiotics. Always double-check if antibiotic use is warranted.
Dysbiosis is when the balance between the good guys and the bad guys breaks down in your child’s gut. For example, Candida. Did you know that we are all expected to have some levels of this “commensal” fungus? But when its growth is unchecked, this can manifest as yeast infections, thrush and so on…
Welcome to functional nutrition for kids. Today you’re listening to Dr. Valerie levels. Dr. Valerie is a naturopathic physician based in Oregon with not only her doctorate in naturopathic medicine, but also a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology, and a background in behavioral therapies for children with developmental needs. She has over 20 years of experience working with families, schools, and professionals advocating for the best possible care for children. Her practice focuses on pediatric developmental conditions, including autism, Down syndrome, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder.
Something I love about Dr. Laros, as the practice is that she understands that Each child is unique in their genetics, biochemistry, and temperament, regardless of diet, diagnostic labels, so this is so close to my heart, and to my belief system. Welcome, Dr. LaRosa. So good to have you here. I’m so eager and excited, you know, to bring your knowledge of working with chronic infections and immunity, especially to understand what that means for a child with autism and or ADHD.
Thank you Vaish. I’m so happy to be here as well.
When we talk about infections, I feel like this is a term that is a little bit misunderstood. What do we mean, because we often meet children with no outward signs of an infection, for example, parents will say that their child is healthy, I don’t think my child has an infection. So what do we mean? What do you mean by infections?
Yeah, well, I think I think the complication here is between the two, two different processes are two different issues. One of them is infection. And so maybe I can start by just clarifying what do we mean when we say infection, when we say infection, we’re thinking of a microbe, and I’m going to use that term a lot today, I think, because that uncaught can encompass a bacteria, a virus, a fungus, you know, some microbes, that isn’t commonly found within our own body.
We think of it as this kind of invasion of this foreign microbe that isn’t a part of us. And then the other part of that is, we see some sort of immune activation. And if you think of the kind of just the most common example, like, you know, the common cold virus, you know, you might, you might get some, you know, runny nose, some increased mucus production, maybe in the case of, you know, a more bacterial infection, like strep throat or something like that, you might see a fever, you know, we see the immune system responding to this, this foreign microbe, and trying to defend us, and that’s what we think of as infection, right. But in a lot of the kids that I see, and I suspect this is probably true, well beyond the labels of, you know, neurodevelopmental conditions. But basically, for many children and adults today, there’s this other process that the best term we have for it really is dysbiosis. And what that is really speaking to is that we all have kind of this balance of helpful and harmful microbes in and on our body.
And dysbiosis is saying that that balance is somehow out of balance, basically, and that we might have more harmful species than beneficial, and that that is impacting our body in all sorts of ways we’ll talk about today. So I think I think it can be confusing between those two terms, because an infection again, implies this is a really foreign microbe, whereas dysbiosis I think maybe an example a lot of people can relate to and have heard about, or experienced is like a candida overgrowth or yeast overgrowth, so Candida albicans. In particular, you know, that is considered normal flora. However, when it grows unchecked by other microbes.
By more beneficial species, it can cause symptoms. So maybe a baby can get thrush. Or you can have yeast infections in the guts or vaginal yeast infections. And yet, here’s this, this microbe that isn’t technically this foreign invader, it’s just that it grew unchecked. So. So dysbiosis is really talking about balance, whereas infection is more maybe invasion and immune activation, but maybe that word might be indigenous to it to a certain population of people what microbes are, are more foreign to that population. Which ones are disease-causing which ones aren’t? So all of that can kind of confuse what’s going on. So a lot of times we will speak about chronic infection when maybe a better term is more just chronic dysbiosis I think I think maybe also that term is much more commonly known.
That’s an interesting question. I think I like that. So chronic dysbiosis Yeah. I was my second question was going to be about it.
An immune system that’s constantly wrapped up. But I think I should probably preface it with the question that in this chronic dysbiosis, which is probably more common than we think, is if the immune system is constantly like in a state of alarm, and what what is the impact of that on a child’s focus, etc.
Yeah, lots of different impacts. Anything that’s going on with the microbiome is directly impacting the immune system, it’s directly impacting the brain because there’s so much communication going on. And we can see that in measurable, you know, chemicals in the body, things like inflammatory cytokines and everything that that there is this immune activation happening with dysbiosis. Now, I, but here today, we’re mainly talking about this sort of gut, gut dysbiosis, or the imbalance of gut microbes. And they certainly activate the immune system. So and I think this is where it can be confusing to say, you know, even an overgrowth of something that’s normally supposed to be there, that’s going to create an overabundance of, you know, byproducts that that microbe would normally be making, but maybe not in such large quantities, you know, that’s going to impact the immune system and the brain and so forth.
Recap. You’d be retested chronic infection, and then you related that to chronic dysbiosis, which if you prefer to use, you’re reminding us that the brain, the gut, and immune system are in constant messaging with each other. And when dysbiosis there is immune activation, and when there’s immune activation, I think there’s inflammation and then there are messengers that then are going to impact brain function.
Yeah, everything about the immune system, this question of, Is this me? Or is this not me? And what we see so much going on right now, I mean, two things that we see so much going on right now, chronically in adults. And now certainly in our practice, we see this in children, our allergy and autoimmunity, right, so allergy, things that should be harmless like your, you know, pet dander and dust and grass that your child is playing and things like that.
Right, the immune system should not be reacting to those things. And then the other side is autoimmunity, where your immune system is reacting to your own tissues. And clearly, that’s those are two examples of the immune system, you know, not functioning properly, because ultimately, the immune system should just have two jobs, it should fight infection, right? So maybe there’s you know, Epstein Barr Virus or the flu virus or the cold virus, or, or you know, I think with bacteria, it’s a little more complicated, right, because even things like strep can be present in someone’s system and not be infectious.
You’ve brought in what I think of as immune system confusion, right? So should have probably, for millennia have been pretty straightforward. And then suddenly, we’re entering into this murky world of so many kids having allergies and autoimmunity and No, no, just sort of, yeah, just dysbiosis is there, I’m probably jumping the gun a little bit, right. But what can we do to unconfuse the immune system in terms of food and lifestyle choices?
I love that term. Let’s I’m gonna use that. Do we need to unconfused ourselves? Well, I mean, I think about this a lot from the big picture standpoint. And you know, how did this all happen? And a lot of people are looking at it that way. Dr. Maya, St. Klein, who’s a pediatric neurologist has this great book called The dirt care that I really agree with so much of what she’s saying. And we are about this whole hygiene hypothesis, that part of what has happened in very westernized, very industrialized societies. And it probably also really started with industrializing our agriculture, right? Aren’t the animals and the foods of plants that we eat? You know, there is, I think, probably the overwhelming theory out there with the most evidence is that moving in that direction of you know, more chemicals, less nature, basically, right, less dirt and plants and animals has impacted our microbiome, right? Because when we look at when we compare different populations around the world, or we compare, you know, urban populations to rural populations that are more in contact with, you know, and when I say nature, I mean, quite tangibly, you know, soil, animals, plants, but really everything kind of comes back to the soil. So, long story short, how can I make this as practical as possible? Well, like, as Dr. St. Klein talks about in her book, it’s, it’s being in contact with soil with healthy soil. Now, here’s the other thing when we think soil, you know, we it could be, you know, a really industrial farm that’s, you know, putting pesticides and herbicides all over the place and chemical-free lasers and all these things.
Now, if you’re going to contact that soil, put that in your mouth or grow you’re, you know, veggies in that soil and then adjust them, you’re not going to get the same effect as healthy soil. And what do I mean by healthy, it’s going to have nutrients in it, it’s going to have, you know, a higher concentration of minerals that we need. But for our purposes today, and in general, what’s really healthy about it is soil microbes. Yeah, so all of this stuff that we want in our gut that we want running our gut, brain immune access really starts in healthy soil. So these microbes grow in the soil. And then of course, any animals that are also in that soil utilizing that soil that we might later on, you know, eat or you know, get dairy products from or something we’re gonna get, you know, get better nutrition from and, and this is where, so much of your, you know, general nutrition advice that you hear these days comes from, right, so local, produce organic, produce lots of plant-based foods, diets, whatever, you know, fruits, veggies, and then when you talk about any animal foods that someone might eat, you hear words like antibiotic and hormone-free because they’re going to have better those animals are going to have better microbiome sister antibiotic and hormone-free. And you hear terms like pastured eggs, pastured meats.
To the story, I heard Dr. Zack Bush talk last year, and I think he was referencing either the Human Microbiome Project, the American gut project, I can’t remember which I’m just thrilled that there is more than one project that is actually looking into the gut microbiome. But he was talking about how they study the microbiome of the Hadza tribe, even bacteria that are pathogenic in our guts are actually okay, or perhaps commensal is the right word in the in there. And he actually mentioned, well, meaning interventionists giving members of this tribe antibiotics, so they wouldn’t have to bother with diseases in the future, and ate it like candy. And the researchers that came back they weren’t aware of this. They were dismayed to know about this, but I don’t know how much time elapse before they analyze their stool again. But their microbiome was practically undisturbed. And he was talking about the extent of, you know, intermingling symbiosis, wherever you want to call it with their natural environment. And I know that it’s something that we don’t have here. Yes, and you said that microbe microbial diversity has to do with the chronic inflow of infections with any of the diagnostic labels that we get stuck with like autism, ADHD, anything because the brain can be impacted.
It’s just the label depends on how the brain is impacted, right, how the impacted how the brain is, those are almost like minor, fine points, but the dysbiosis is more of the root cause in many situations, you gave some excellent lifestyle, you know, habits, and then and we also know that their food habits in terms of you can also touch the microbiome through fermented foods, etc. But if a child is already struggling with a severely impacted microbiome techniques still apply.
I think absolutely they do. And like I said, I mean, here we are today, I mean, my practice is, you know, focused in on neurodevelopmental conditions and children and everything, but the more I learned about this, and the more you see these, these patterns that are so systemic, right, that have to do with our food supply and our lifestyle and things like that, you see other connections like I said, things like allergy and autoimmunity and things like that. So in a sense, the things that we all kind of need to be doing very baseline, to support a healthy microbiome Are you know, to be eating as close as possible to that healthy microbe-rich, nutrient-rich soil? So that might even mean you just you know, have a tiny little bit of soil somewhere? I don’t know it could even be hot you know, sometimes I think okay, what’s the like most maybe they have a Windows I don’t know.
I actually watch the product that I get from my local area. Just yeah.
Yeah, even if you can’t grow anything, you know, going to the farmers market. Yeah, I’ve actually can stop peeling carrots if they’re just organic carrots that I bought at a co-op, you know, just rinse them off a little bit of water to rinse you know, we’ve just become so highly sanitized about everything and kind of fearing dirt. So it’s even a funny thing to talk about, you know, healthy soil as a good thing. But yeah, I mean, in terms of whether someone’s really impacted by this, I mean, I think we’re all you know, impacted by it to some extent and as you talk to different people you start to say, well, I don’t react anything I’m fine I’m totally help the internet and then it’s like, oh, but I just have this egg.
I’ve had for years or, Oh yeah, I just have allergies, but I take Claritin every day. So it’s fine. You know, and it’s so I don’t even know how many people aren’t?
Yeah, yeah, it is, everybody’s immune system is in a state of some level of confusion.
Yeah. And when you look at, you know, in populations, like the one that I work with, where, you know, we have to do a lot more heavy lifting to get that microbiome in balance, I often won’t start with those kinds of recommendations where, you know, kind of treating, you know, what we see, we do a lot of stool testing and organic acid testing to see what’s going on with the microbiome. And then as it starts to shift back into normal, it’s not like a, you’re all done, you know, I took that medicine for 10 days, and now I’m all better kind of mindset. That’s where, these things are still really valuable. And aside from our food supply, you know, really spending time in nature, but getting a nature actually touching the soil. If you know that your own backyard has, you know, has not been sprayed and hasn’t had chemicals on it for many years. You know, let your kids walk around barefoot and things, you know, they can contact those, those healthy soil microbes actually through skin contact as well. And then probably aside from food and dirt.
The third area is really looking at our use of you know, certainly antibiotic medications, but also antibacterial gels and soaps and things like that, we need the microbiome on our skin as well, not just in our guts, we use a lot of plants, antimicrobials. So as our medicines and I have found that I’ve been able to use fewer and fewer antibiotics as the years go on in my practice, and as the research shows that a lot of plant-based antimicrobials are, you know, are getting more and more research studies done, so that we can see that, you know, the use of a pharmaceutical antibiotic is not always warranted.
Thanks, and I left the focus of your talk on infection, bringing it back to chronic dysbiosis. And bringing it back to the microbiome and you were hitting that point in so many ways that it’s so important to make sure that you have constant access to to a diverse microbiome, regardless of if you have to go to a forester, or some sort of a natural place, whether it’s a beach if it’s your own soil, perhaps it’s your composting, you’re just working with worms,
or well, and so many I mean, I’m in Portland, Oregon, so I don’t know if this is true, all over this country. Many school programs from preschool on up, at least in the elementary schools include some kind of a school garden and growing food and flowers and, and there’s so much research to in terms of stress, the benefits to our stress response of being in nature or contact with soil. But I personally can’t help but wonder how much of that decreased stress response is mediated through the microbiome. Now, of course, it’s nice to be out in the fresh air and see the pretty flowers and all of that. And, you know, we have all this research that just says, oh, nature decreases our stress response.
That’s true for children, and they’ll eat more veggies if they grew them. But they’re also probably getting all these amazing microbiome effects to bring it back to, you know, more clinical work as I do here. Like I said that you know, this is more just baseline preventative keep growing that healthy microbiome. But like I said, after, after a period of maybe a little bit more aggressive treatment using often, you know, primarily plant antimicrobials and things like that, then you still want to revisit all these ideas, because you know, the amazing thing about these populations of, of healthy and harmful bacteria is if you can keep growing the healthy ones, they’re going to take over that work for us and keep the harmful microbes in check So you
Well, thank you for talking to us, Dr. LaRosa. And I can’t wait to have another conversation more in-depth about immunity, inflammation, and infections.
You’ve been listening to functional nutrition for kids, where we just finished wrapping up the first 13 episodes of the fantastic first season, focusing on focus, hyperactivity, and picky eating through so many different lenses. We’re going to take a short two-week break so I’ll meet you on the other side of this month on the fifth of December Thursday. We’re going to start a brand new exciting season focused on learning and the humongous myths associated with learning. So stay tuned. I am so excited and I can’t wait for the second season to stop bye.