The Gut-Brain Connection
What if I offered you a holiday which either tasted good or during which you would look and feel good? Which would you choose? Would you rather eat and drink whatever you like from that laden holiday buffet or be in a good mood – and feel healthy – while you stand around it? The question is not as silly as it sounds. New discoveries in neuroscience are helping health researchers understand how the gut-brain connection works to keep you healthy – or make you sick.
Studies confirm: gut bacteria affects brain function
We’ve always known that the brain can send messages to the gut. For example, when you perceive that you’re in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation, those butterflies in your stomach are a clear message from the brain. But mounting evidence shows that the bacteria in our gut can also affect our brain, creating anxiety, depression, and more. Researchers at UCLA have now been able to demonstrate that the gut-brain connection is a two-way street. In their proof-of-concept study, women who regularly ate yogurt containing beneficial bacteria (a probiotic) had altered brain function compared to those who did not consume probiotics.
You have two nervous systems
Your central nervous system, composed of brain and spinal cord, is made from identical tissue as your enteric nervous system – the nervous system of your gastrointestinal tract. The bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other micro-organisms that make up your gut comprise 90% of your body’s cells and they don’t just sit there, sending more information to the brain (via the vagus nerve) than the brain ever sends to the gut.
Just like the brain atop our shoulders, the gut-brain has hormones and neurons, including some which produce neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, involved in mood control, depression, and aggression. In fact, there are greater amounts of serotonin in your gut than there are in your brain, which could explain why anti-depressant medication, which raises serotonin levels in the brain, is often ineffective in treating depression. It also explains why dietary changes often help lift mood; we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Messages of inflammation create ill health
External stressors, emotional imbalance, a poor diet (especially one full of sugar and food additives), and environmental toxins create a gut with an excess of negative microbes. As it gets out of balance, the gut becomes inflamed and sends messages about the inflammation to the brain and immune system. The inflammation causes brain/ mental health and other problems.
The list of physical diseases now thought to be brought on by the wrong gut microbes is much longer than previously suspected. If your gut is unhappy, it can lead to:
- Immune function problems, such as Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimers
- Diabetes: the gut microflora of diabetics is different from that of non-diabetics
- Obesity: the make-up of gut bacteria differs between lean and obese people
- Autism: babies whose gut flora develop abnormally often come to have compromised immune systems and are at high risk for developing ADHD, learning disabilities and autism
- Asthma and allergies
There’s a war going on
Given the vital importance of “good” gut bacteria to overall health, it should come as no surprise that most of us are engaged in a war; the conflict zone is our intestinal tract and the combatants are our healthy bacteria holding out valiantly against hordes of invaders that often cause widespread destruction. Here are a few of the gut attackers:
- Conventionally-raised meats and animal products, which are often continually fed low-dose antibiotics
- Processed foods: the excess sugars and other “dead” nutrients which feed the unhealthy bacteria
- Genetically modified foods, which have been shown to destroy good gut bacteria
- Chlorinated and/or fluoridated water
- Antibacterial soap (yes, it kills all the good bacteria as well as the pathogenic ones)
- Agricultural chemicals
So, what should someone aspiring to good health do?
Getting back to your holiday
The good news is that the make-up of the gut microflora isn’t usually permanent; we can alter it through strategies such as diet, stress management, and managing environmental toxins. The kind of fare offered at get-togethers is typically meat-based and high in carbohydrates and sugar. Prevalent artificial sweeteners, food colouring, and additives are just as bad, as are gluten and dairy foods for some. While you may not have much control over the menu, you can control which items you choose to put on your plate, and how much of them you eat. Are all those delicious sweets – gulped down in a few minutes – worth risking your stable, upbeat mood for?
At home, before and after the parties, you have additional options:
- Avoid refined, heavily processed foods in your diet.
- Eat unpasteurised and traditionally fermented foods. Some of the good bacteria in these also help get rid of heavy metals and pesticides, which helps the gut by reducing the toxic load. Included here are fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut and kim-chi, kefir, and “lassi” (the yoghurt-based Indian drink)
- Regularly take a high-quality probiotic supplement.
The Christmas season can be such a fun time, but you’ll enjoy all the parties so much more if you’re not anxious, depressed or sick because your good gut bacteria are losing the battle to the disease-creating ones.
- Ivey, A.E. & Ivey, M.B. (2015). Neuro-counselling: Bridging brain and behaviour: Redefining ‘gut feelings’. Counselling Today, July, 2015,14-15. Retrieved on 10 November, 2015, from: hyperlink.
- Mercola. (2013). Your gut bacteria affects your brain function, study confirms. Mercola.com. Retrieved on 10/11/15 from: hyperlink.