Our overall health and longevity is defined by so many factors. We are all shaped by a plethora of integrated functions and systems. As such it is very important to understand how our systems integrate and communicate. One of the most intriguing and critical aspects of our existence is our brain health. As I have written about in past blogs, there’s a fascinating area of research that is exploring the gut and brain connection. It turns out that our brain’s health is dictated not only by what goes on in the body as it relates to the brain, but perhaps even more significantly, what is happening in our gut. the activity and state of our gut, specifically, in our intestines not only directly impacts our daily brain function, but also plays a huge role in determining our risk for developing future brain and neurological disease.
Your microbiome ( intestinal organisms and gut flora) not only influence immunity, detoxification, inflammation, neurotransmitter and vitamin production, nutrient absorption, utilization and breakdown of carbohydrates and fats which all play a role in chronic health problems like asthma, allergies, ADHD, cancer, type 2 diabetes, but we re now learning that they also impact our mood, energy, libido, perceptions, and clarity of thought. It is believed that imbalanced or dysfunctional gut flora may also be at the root of migraines, anxiety, depression and inability to concentrate.
We know the gut-brain pathway is bi-directional. The vagus nerve ( the longest of the crainal nerves) is in fact a connector of the intestinal nervous system (enteric nervous system) and our central nervous system ( brain and spinal cord). It extends from the brain stem down to the abdomen and also directs heart rate and digestive functions. It turns out, gut bacteria affect the function of the cells along the vagus nerve – releasing neurotransmitters that communicate with the brain. The gut is often referred to as the “second brain.” In addition to regulating immune cells, muscle and hormonal functions, it also manufactures a whopping 80-90% of the “feel good” neurotransmitter, serotonin. This finding may lead to a new approach of dealing with and treating depression by addressing how dietary changes can impact gut health!
Two other chemicals manufactured in the gut – GABA ( amino acid) has been shown to calm the nervous system after its been overexcited by stress and Glutamine ( a neurotransmitter) impacts cognition, learning, and memory. Glutamine appears plentiful in scans of healthy brains and, therefore, may play a critical role in dealing with neurological challenges such as anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s.
In addition, it is believed that the problems associated with “leaky gut or intestinal permeability” – a loss of gut integrity where the protective junctions in the intestinal lining become compromised due to a variety of factors that include: food and environmental toxins, bacterial pathogens, certain medications, stress, and elevated blood sugar which may in fact lead to a “leaky brain.” Once the intestinal barrier is compromised, undigested food particles and toxins enter the bloodstream triggering an immune response which can then lead to systemic inflammation. These toxins and pathogens can travel across the brain barrier and enter the brain! Once the brain barrier is compromised various harmful proteins, viruses and bacteria can do their damage.
We have all heard the adage: “ YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT.” In light of the gut-brain connection, nothing seems more relevant then looking at what we can do regarding the food we eat and how this affects our microbiome. Research indicates that two mechanisms that really impact brain degeneration are chronic inflammation and action of free radicals ( byproducts of inflammation) are directly influenced by gut bacteria and thus gut health. So let’s look at how we can change the microbiome, thereby reducing inflammation and thus not only the the risk for developing neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, but alleviating moodiness, anxiety and depression, bolstering the immune system, and helping to manage and/or prevent metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes and obesity.
- Probiotic-rich foods: Good digestive health begins with restoring the gut flora enhancing probiotics ( live bacteria and yeast). The two most important types are bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. They are best consumed in real food sources, but are also available in high quality supplements as well. These probiotic bacteria help with maintaining the integrity of the gut lining (critical in preventing leaky gut), regulating immunity, reducing inflammation and acting as natural antibiotics, antifungals and antivirals. Ex: Live culture yogurt ( coconut or goat yogurt), kefir, kombucha tea, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles and fermented vegetables.
- Minimize carbs and add in healthy fats: Simply put, keeping your blood sugar in line and stable helps with balancing your gut bacteria. A diet high in sugar, low in fiber and healthy fats increases intestinal permeability, mitochondrial damage, a weakened immune system and elevated inflammation and thus the gut-brain-gut cycle. Studies now show that coronary artery disease is much less to do with saturated fat and more to do with inflammation. Additionally, studies show that the brain functions less optimally when cholesterol is low. In fact, people with low cholesterol are actually at a higher risk for developing depression and dementia.
- Consume some organic dark chocolate, coffee and tea. All three contain flavonols ( a form of polyphenols) exhibit anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, help with improved blood flow to the brain. Chocolate and coffee also are known to stimulate the Nrf2 gene pathway, helping the body to produce more antioxidants, and enhancing detoxification. Polyphenols found in black tea may be linked to promoting healthy gut microbial diversity. Green tea ( as well as tumeric) are Nrf2 activators has been shown to increase levels of bifidobacteria.
- Consume prebiotic-rich foods: Raw garlic, cooked and raw onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes and jicama. They all have anti-inflammatory properties, enhance mineral absorption and satiety ( producing less ghrelin hormone).
- Drink plenty of filtered water: Must avoid environmental toxins like chlorine which has been linked to disruption of the gut microbiome and brain function.