Writing this blog was a personal journey for me, one that I hesitated to share due to the hate mail I receive whenever I mention a whole-food, plant-based diet (WFPB). If you are one of the people my sharing about plant-based nutrition bothers, I respect your choice to not read any further. However, if you are intrigued by the science about gut health and plant fiber and how we can aid our recovery by supporting our gut, I invite you to continue reading.  My own transformation over the past five years, embracing a whole-food, plant-based diet, has been nothing short of remarkable. So much so that I felt compelled to deepen my knowledge a few years ago and got certified in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University.

As research continues to unveil the intricate connections between the gut and the brain, it’s becoming increasingly clear that maintaining gut health can be a game-changer, even in the face of withdrawal symptoms. Let’s delve into how the gut microbiome can influence benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms and how a few simple dietary changes can bolster gut health during this challenging time. This post may be dense with scientific terms, but the key takeaway is simple: by eating what supports our gut, we can unlock its incredible healing potential.

People ask me if they will heal if they don’t go plant-based. Yes! Of course. We all heal in time. However, if you want to stack the cards in your favor to heal as quickly as possible and to go on being as healthy as possible, I hope you will begin moving toward a plant-based diet. People also ask if I will coach them, or if they can join my support group if they are not plant-based. Of course I’ll help, no matter what diet you choose to eat.

Understanding the Gut-Brain Axis

The gut-brain axis is a complex communication network linking the central nervous system (brain) and the enteric nervous system (gut). Neural, hormonal, and immunological pathways facilitate this bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain. The gut microbiome, comprising trillions of microorganisms, plays a pivotal role in this interaction. Healthy gut microbiota are essential for maintaining gastrointestinal health and influencing mood, cognition, and overall mental well-being.

Role of the Gut-Brain Axis in Mood, Cognition, and Overall Mental Well-Being

  1. Mood Regulation:
    • Neurotransmitter Production: The gut microbiota produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which are critical for mood regulation. Approximately 90% of serotonin, a key neurotransmitter for mood stabilization, is produced in the gut.
    • Inflammation and Mood Disorders: Dysbiosis, an imbalance in gut microbiota, can lead to increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut), allowing pro-inflammatory cytokines to enter the bloodstream and reach the brain. Chronic inflammation is associated with mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
  2. Cognition:
    • Neuroplasticity and Cognitive Function: Healthy gut microbiota support the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is essential for neuroplasticity, learning, and memory. Dysbiosis can impair cognitive functions and increase the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
    • Gut Microbiota and Cognitive Performance: Studies have shown that prebiotics, probiotics, and fiber in plants can improve cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and executive functions by modulating the gut microbiota.
  3. Overall Mental Well-Being:
    • Stress Response: The gut-brain axis influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates the body’s response to stress. A healthy gut can help modulate the stress response, reducing the risk of chronic stress and its negative impact on mental health.
    • Emotional Health: Gut microbiota produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) like butyrate, which have anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects. These SCFAs help maintain the integrity of the blood-brain barrier and support overall brain health, contributing to better emotional well-being.

Benzodiazepines can disrupt the balance of gut microbiota, Here’s an overview:

Mechanisms of Disruption

  1. Direct Antimicrobial Effects:
    • Some benzodiazepines exhibit antimicrobial properties that can directly alter the composition of gut microbiota. By inhibiting the growth of certain bacterial species, these drugs can reduce microbial diversity and disrupt the balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria.
  2. Immune System Modulation:
    • Benzodiazepines can modulate the immune system, leading to changes in the gut’s immune environment. This immune modulation can affect the gut microbiota composition by altering the host’s immune responses, which play a critical role in maintaining microbial balance.
  3. Impact on Gastrointestinal Motility:
    • Benzodiazepines often slow gastrointestinal motility, leading to constipation and reduced gut transit time. Slower gut motility can promote the overgrowth of certain bacteria, disrupting the natural balance of the microbiome.
  4. Alteration of Neurotransmitter Levels:
    • The gut and brain communicate via the gut-brain axis, and neurotransmitters like serotonin play a crucial role in this communication. Benzodiazepines, which act on the central nervous system, can alter the levels of neurotransmitters that influence gut function and microbiota composition.
  5. Stress and Hormonal Changes:
    • Benzodiazepines can impact the body’s stress response and hormonal balance, including the production of cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels can negatively affect the gut microbiota, promoting the growth of pathogenic bacteria and reducing beneficial bacteria.

This disruption can exacerbate withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and gastrointestinal distress. “Benzo Belly” is a very common withdrawal symptom, comprised of numerous uncomfortable G.I. symptoms. Nurturing a healthy gut microbiome through a whole food plant-based diet, or at the very least, a diet high in plant foods, can be a crucial strategy in helping the recovery process.

Dietary Tips to Support Gut Health During Withdrawal

Adopting a whole-food, plant-based diet can significantly improve gut health and help reduce benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms. Here are some key dietary tips:

  1. Increase Fiber Intake:
    • Benefits: Fiber feeds beneficial gut bacteria, promoting a healthy microbiome. It also aids in regular bowel movements and prevents constipation.
    • Sources: Incorporate a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds into your diet. Foods like apples, berries, beans, lentils, quinoa, chia seeds, and oats are excellent fiber sources.
  2. Incorporate Fermented Foods:
    • Benefits: Fermented foods contain probiotics that replenish and diversify gut bacteria, enhancing gut health and improving mood. In benzo withdrawal, these foods may be triggering. Start with a spoonful and see how you respond. If you react, you can try again in the future.
    • Sources: Include foods such as sauerkraut, sourdough bread, kimchi, miso, tempeh, beet kavass and plant-based yogurts in your meals. Apple Cider Vinegar is often tolerated and contains both pre and probiotics if the bottle has “the mother” in it.
  3. Focus on Prebiotics:
    • Benefits: Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers that feed beneficial gut bacteria, promoting their growth and activity.
    • Sources: Foods rich in prebiotics include garlic, onions, leeks, potatoes, asparagus, bananas, and Jerusalem artichokes.
  4. Consume Polyphenol-Rich Foods:
    • Benefits: Polyphenols are plant compounds with antioxidant properties that support gut health by fostering beneficial bacteria and reducing inflammation.
    • Sources: Incorporate foods like blueberries, plums, cherries, apples, strawberries, black currants, black olives, dark chocolate, hazelnuts and pecan, dark chocolate (with minimal sugar), nuts, and seeds into your diet.
  5. Hydrate Adequately:
    • Benefits: Staying well-hydrated is essential for maintaining gut motility and overall digestive health.
    • Sources: Aim for at least 8-10 glasses of water per day. Water-rich fruits and vegetables (e.g., cucumbers, oranges, melons) also contribute to hydration.
  6. Limit Processed Foods and Refined Sugars:
    • Impact: Processed foods and refined sugars can disrupt gut microbiota balance, leading to increased inflammation and worsened withdrawal symptoms.
    • Tip: Focus on whole, unprocessed foods. Prepare meals at home using fresh ingredients to avoid added sugars and preservatives. Most restaurant food is high in unhealthy fats, sugar, and salt.
  7. Incorporate Healthy Fats:
    • Benefits: Healthy fats support brain health and reduce inflammation.
    • Sources: Include avocados, nuts, seeds, and olives in your diet.

Animal Protein and the Effect on the Gut

Research on animal protein and its effect on the gut has shown several significant findings, particularly regarding gut microbiota composition, intestinal inflammation, and overall gut health. Here are some key points from recent studies:

  1. Alteration of Gut Microbiota:
    • Diets high in animal protein can alter the composition of the gut microbiota. These diets are often associated with an increase in bile-tolerant microorganisms such as Bacteroides and Alistipes and a decrease in beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus​ (LIVEKINDLY)​.
    • A study published in the journal Nature found that a diet high in animal protein and fat led to a rapid increase in the abundance of bile-tolerant bacteria and a decrease in bacteria that metabolize plant polysaccharides​ (EatPlant-Based)​.
  2. Production of Harmful Metabolites:
    • Animal protein consumption can lead to the production of potentially harmful metabolites such as trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO has been linked to cardiovascular diseases and is produced when gut bacteria metabolize choline, carnitine, and lecithin found in animal products​ (EatPlant-Based)​.
    • Increased protein fermentation in the colon, resulting from high animal protein intake, can produce metabolites like ammonia, phenols, and sulfides, which may contribute to gut inflammation and colon cancer risk​ (Center for Nutrition Studies)​.
  3. Intestinal Inflammation:
    • Diets rich in animal protein may promote inflammation within the gut. A study in Gut journal showed that high animal protein intake was associated with increased levels of inflammatory markers in the gut​ (Center for Nutrition Studies)​.
    • Animal proteins can lead to an increase in inflammatory bacteria such as Bilophila wadsworthia, which is associated with inflammation and colitis​ (LIVEKINDLY)​​ (EatPlant-Based)​.
  4. Gut Barrier Function:
    • High consumption of animal protein may impair the gut barrier function, leading to increased intestinal permeability, often referred to as “leaky gut.” This condition can allow harmful substances to pass from the gut into the bloodstream, potentially leading to systemic inflammation and other health issues​ (Center for Nutrition Studies)​.
  5. Cancer Risk:
    • Several studies have indicated that high consumption of red and processed meats is linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. This risk is partly due to the production of carcinogenic compounds like N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) during the digestion and cooking of animal proteins​ (Center for Nutrition Studies)​.

The consumption of animal protein can have various effects on gut health, including altering the gut microbiota, increasing the production of harmful metabolites, promoting intestinal inflammation, impairing gut barrier function, and increasing cancer risk. These findings highlight the importance of considering the type and amount of protein in our diet and suggest potential benefits of incorporating more plant-based proteins for better gut health.

For more information, please check out the research of these doctors:

  1. Dr. T. Colin Campbell:
    • Dr. Campbell is a Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University and author of “The China Study,” which explores the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Read about his research that promoted him to explore plant-based nutrition.
    • Website: nutritionstudies.org
  2. Dr. Neal Barnard:
    • Dr. Barnard is the founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and a clinical researcher focusing on the impact of diet on diabetes, obesity, and chronic pain. He has a new book out, “The Power Foods Diet.”
    • Website: pcrm.org
  3. Dr. John McDougall:
    • Dr. McDougall is known for his advocacy of a low-fat, starch-based diet and has authored several books, including “The Starch Solution.”
    • Website: drmcdougall.com
  4. Dr. Michael Greger:
    • Dr. Greger is the founder of NutritionFacts.org and author of “How Not to Die,”  “How Not To Diet,” And “How Not To Age.” where he explores the benefits of a plant-based diet in preventing chronic diseases. Check out his story about why he became and doctor and focused on nutrition!
    • Website: nutritionfacts.org
  5. Dr. Joel Fuhrman:
    • Dr. Fuhrman is an advocate for a nutrient-dense, plant-rich diet, and author of “Eat to Live,” which focuses on reversing disease through nutrition.
    • Website: drfuhrman.com
  6. Dr. Dean Ornish:
    • Dr. Ornish is known for his work in reversing heart disease through diet and lifestyle changes. He is the founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. His newest research shows a WFPB diet reversing some dementia.
    • Website: ornish.com
  7. Dr. Michael Klaper
    • Dr. Michael Klaper is a physician, author, and educator who advocates for a plant-based diet for optimal health. His work focuses on the impact of diet on chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Dr. Klaper believes that a whole-food, plant-based diet can prevent and reverse many of these diseases.
    • Website: doctorklaper.com

These experts have significantly contributed to the understanding and promotion of plant-based nutrition through their research, publications, and clinical practices​ (EatPlant-Based)​​ (Nutriciously)​​ (World of Vegan)​​ (LIVEKINDLY)​​ (EatPlant-Based)​​ (Center for Nutrition Studies)​.

Here are some chefs to follow:

  • Simnett Nutrition (Derek Simnett)
    • Derek Simnett is a certified nutritionist and fitness coach who shares plant-based recipes, nutrition tips, and workout routines on his YouTube channel.
    • YouTube: Simnett Nutrition
    • Website: simnettnutrition.com
  • Well Your World (Dillon Holmes)
    • Dillon Holmes is the creator of Well Your World, where he shares whole-food, plant-based recipes and cooking demonstrations. He focuses on oil-free, low-sodium cooking.
    • YouTube: Well Your World
    • Website: wellyourworld.com
  • Toni Okamoto (Plant-Based on a Budget)
  • Brian Turner
    • Brian Turner is a bodybuilder who focuses on plant-based fitness and nutrition. He shares high-protein vegan recipes and fitness tips.
    • YouTube: Brian Turner
    • Website: brianturnerofficial.com
  • Chef AJ
    • Chef AJ is a culinary instructor, professional speaker, and author who focuses on plant-based, whole-food recipes. She also emphasizes oil-free cooking.
    • YouTube: Chef AJ
    • Website: chefajwebsite.com
  • Gaz Oakley (Avant-Garde Vegan)
    • Gaz Oakley, known as Avant-Garde Vegan, creates innovative and delicious plant-based recipes. His YouTube channel features a variety of recipes, from quick meals to gourmet dishes.
    • YouTube: Avant-Garde Vegan
    • Website: avantgardevegan.com
  • Nisha Vora (Rainbow Plant Life)
    • Nisha Vora creates vibrant and flavorful plant-based recipes. Her channel, Rainbow Plant Life, includes tutorials and cooking tips. She has a fun, quirky personality and is a joy to watch and learn from.
    • YouTube: Rainbow Plant Life
    • Website: rainbowplantlife.com
  • Sweet Potato Soul (Jenné Claiborne)
    • Jenné Claiborne, the chef behind Sweet Potato Soul, shares Southern-inspired vegan recipes that are both delicious and healthful.
    • YouTube: Sweet Potato Soul
    • Website: sweetpotatosoul.com
  • Wicked Kitchen.
    • Here, you can find a variety of plant-based recipes, cooking tips, and more at Derek Sarno’s YouTube channel. I watch his shows as a way to relax. His video on cooking 1800 meals at a retreat was incredibly soothing to watch.
    • Wicked Kitchen YouTube Channel:

Conclusion

My clients who switch to a whole-food, plant-based diet report many benefits, the top three are: improved sleep, less pain, and less cog fog. A WFPB diet isn’t a cure for benzo withdrawal, but it can help, and of course, put you on the path to better health. By focusing on nourishing your body with fiber-rich, prebiotic, and probiotic foods, you can help balance your gut microbiome, reduce inflammation, and improve your overall mental and physical well-being. Embrace the power of plant-based nutrition to support your withdrawal process and pave the way for a healthier, happier future. I am incredibly glad I did!