The Gut–Brain Connection

CARRIE STEELE outlines the latest research into the way gut microbiomes influence the brain.


A few years ago I made some flippant comments in a rant I wrote about yoghurt establishments regarding the value of probiotics. What really got me on my high horse back then (and still does…) was that those dessert bars were using the value of probiotics as a way of pitching yoghurt as a health food, all the while encouraging people to smother it with the likes of gooey sauces, jelly snakes, smarties and chocolate buttons.

I’ve come to accept as a truth that it is the bacteria in us that promotes life and health, and since our gut contains more neurotransmitters than the brain, clearly it’s vitally important to keep our gut healthy. And yes, in this modern age of contamination, quality probiotics clearly have a role in helping us do that.

I’ve recently watched Dr Mark Hyman’s docuseries Broken Brain and it’s given me a whole new appreciation of how the body affects the mind – a fact that is currently largely ignored in the field of psychiatry. The gut and the brain start off from the same embryo, so it is little wonder that the gut environment drives changes in the brain. Messages from the gut travel a long a direct highway to the brain, which is why the gut is sometimes referred to as the ‘second brain’. In short, what you do to your body, you do to your brain.

So, what shouldn’t we do to our bodies, if we want to keep our brains healthy? A number of things are helpful, but this blog looks at the diet-brain connection. The experts in the docuseries consistently refer to the SAD diet – Sad American Diet – which really just equates to the typical Western diet of processed foods containing cheap oils, too much sugar, fake colourings and flavourings, and an excess of animal products. Research is also revealing that intra-cellular nutrition is more important than blood nutrition, meaning that blood results (the type our doctors routinely send us for) can be misleading. Therefore, what may seem to be satisfactory results do not necessarily accurately reflect our level of risk.

It was interesting to hear that sugar and flour act the same in our bodies, and that sugars and artificial sweeteners wreak havoc on our microbiome – which as best I understand it, is a term for the microbial community in our gut. The effects of those two regularly consumed ingredients nearly doubles our risk for diabetes by creating insulin resistance, and the resulting inflammation has as much effect on our brain health as it does on the health of the rest of our organs.

Sixty percent of our immune system is in our gut lining, so if the gut lining breaks down, so does our general immunity. It seems that we also underestimate the effect that food has on our mood. The term ‘leaky gut’ is often bandied around, but how about ‘leaky brain’? What’s bad for the gut is bad for the brain, and there doesn’t seem to be too much argument amongst experts about that determination. Consider this: that the food we eat changes the expression of our DNA from moment to moment.

Food is information. 200 years ago we introduced sugar – which has totally changed the information the brain receives. Over-consumption of sugar and refined carbs can bring on cognitive defects leading to conditions such as Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Insulin resistance starts the cascade; the higher your blood sugar, the smaller your brain. Any inflammation in the body also turns on brain inflammation.

So, how do we eat to keep our brains healthy, keeping in mind that dementia begins when we’re younger and takes years to develop? The same healthy recommendations that are given to avoid other diseases apply: eat all the colours of fruit and vegetables, organic wherever possible to avoid environmental toxins from pesticides and herbicides. Eat a non-GMO diet. Eat smart carbs (whole foods) rather than simple processed ones. Avoid processed foods and sugar. You’ll need to start reading labels if you don’t already, and you’ll be surprised to learn how many names there are for sugar – so wise up. Consider taking some good supplements – examples include a probiotic, a multivitamin, B12, and turmeric. Sadly, even with our best efforts, depleted soils and environmental toxins can mean that we miss out on some of the elements we need for optimal nutrition, even when we are making the effort to eat well.

Research has proven that brain function is directly influenced by what we eat, nutritional deficiencies, allergens, hormonal imbalances, infections, toxins and stress. I’m left in no doubt that there is a gut-brain connection, and that what we do to our bodies, we do to our brain. I still keep hearing the argument about everything being okay ‘in moderation’ from people who really don’t want to make any changes to the status quo. Well, frankly, I’m not keen to be even ‘moderately demented’. That’s why I’m going along with the research that’s teaching us how to best try to avoid that scenario.

And there’s more good news: the same trajectory will improve our odds against a host of other debilitating diseases currently at epidemic proportions globally. CARRIE STEELE





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