As a non-scientist, I was recently caught off guard reading about the connection between gut health and brain health. Although I understand our body systems interact in some ways, I always felt my head and my belly were far apart. This is not so! Understanding the connections between body systems can help overall health. Since I have been focusing on mental fitness, I was curious to learn more about the gut-brain connection, specifically how keeping our digestive system healthy can impact our mental well being.
I turned to Bridgit Goldman, Ph.D. For over 20 years, Dr. Goldman has been a biology professor. She specializes in Human Anatomy and Physiology, and Nutrition. She currently teaches at Siena College. I knew she would love to answer my questions about this topic because she is very passionate about how nutrition can impact every part of the body.
GeekMom Rebecca Angel:
I’ve only recently heard about a connection between gut health and brain health in everyday magazines and news outlets. Is this new to the medical/professional community as well?
Dr. Bridgit Goldman:
For over a century, scientists have known about a connection between the gut and the brain; however, it is only recently that we are beginning to understand the immense importance the microbiome (the bacteria that live in your gut) plays in overall health. Recent research connects a good microbiome with better mental health, bone maintenance, metabolism, glucose regulation, digestion, and this is only the beginning!
Even if you just take a moment to think, I bet you already know there is a connection. Think about how someone feels when they hear bad news. They often feel a belly ache. When someone eats nutritious foods, they often feel good about themselves. Intuitively, we know there is a connection, but science is now catching up with all of the amazing details!
When we say “gut,” we mean “digestive system.” But from what I remember from college bio 101, the digestive system has a lot of organs. Which parts of the digestive system have been studied to show a connection with the brain?
Great question. Perhaps you remember from Biology 101 that organisms have evolved to live in specific environments. It’s like that in the body as well. There is a unique set of microflora (bacteria) that house the various parts of the digestive system: the mouth, the stomach, the small intestine and the large intestine (or colon). Usually, when scientists talk about the gut microbiome, they are talking about the bacteria specific to the intestines.
Bacteria in the intestines (guts) do very important jobs for us. It’s called a symbiotic relationship; we give them a home and share the food we eat with them, and they, in turn, help us in myriad ways. For instance, there is evidence that gut bacteria can regulate the production of the precursor to serotonin (the neurotransmitter in your brain that gives you the feeling of happiness), they can alter gene expression in the gut to keep the cells tightly zipped so you don’t develop “leaky gut,” they help with digestion, they work with your immune system to keep you from getting sick, and they influence bone health as well.
While no two people have the exact same microflora, scientists have begun to unravel the complex network of bacteria in a healthy person. Some doctors can use a microflora analysis as a diagnostic tool. Science is showing us that people who are overweight or have certain disorders or diseases tend to share a less diverse microbiome and are often overpopulated with less beneficial bacteria. In other words, certain health issues originate from the wrong microbiome! And these less than beneficial bacteria are getting a home and food in your gut, but not doing the helpful jobs you need them to do for you!
In short, overpopulating your gut with the wrong kind of bacteria can cause serious problems. This is why eating a diet composed of processed foods with loads of added sugar, processed vegetable oils, additives, preservatives and the like, is so detrimental to your health because they are more likely to feed the less beneficial bacteria in your gut.
Is this connection between gut and brain a direct communication or an indirect effect?
The nervous system directly connects the brain and the gut. And the signals go both ways, like an old-fashioned telephone wire. Your brain can tell your gut that it’s time to eat, but there is also evidence that your gut microbiome can also influence your brain in its choice on what to eat. So, if you have diverse healthy gut flora, it can help you stay on track to choose foods for better health, like fresh organic vegetables and soothing mineral-rich bone broths. On the other hand, if your microbiome is overloaded with an unhealthy flora, it may influence unhealthy food choices.
There is also growing evidence that having the right kind of gut bacteria can directly alter behaviors associated with anxiety and depression. In studies done with mice, researchers have demonstrated changed behavior of mice simply by changing their microbiota!
Do we have any control over this connection? Is it genetics, environment, or both?
The first step is to understand that there is a connection between what you eat and how you feel. The environment created for us by most of the food industry leads the majority of people to crave processed foods because these foods have been scientifically designed to make you addicted to them. These processed foods (which make up most of what you see in the supermarket) have contributed to a general population with a microbiome that is not diverse, flourishes on a sugary diet and propagates a lifelong battle with food that leaves one more susceptible to disease.
But there is hope because through understanding how the food industry has set up an environment of cheap unwholesome food, we can fight back! My grandfather had a saying, “Cheap is expensive.” He was in the garment industry and was talking about the quality of materials, but this saying can be related to the food we choose as well. Sure, it’s cheap to drink soda and eat a bag of chips, but you pay more over a lifetime in health problems.
I believe that a human body WANTS to be healthy. While eating processed foods can negatively alter gene expression and lead to chronic problems and disease, the opposite is also true. By being cognizant of what you put in your body, for instance eating fermented foods that build a healthy microbiome, one can build a healthy gut and turn on good genes for a lifetime of health.
Building a diverse microbiome will take time, patience and dedication. But how you feel mentally, physically and emotionally is well worth it. There is so much data that supports that having healthy gut bacteria plays a positive role in mental health. And with the stressful life most of us lead, we need as many de-stress tools as possible. Building a healthy gut is something easy we can all work toward.
Is there a difference between kids, teens and young adults, and adults in gut-brain health?
A healthy gut should begin at birth. When a baby grows inside its mother, the baby’s intestines are sterile. The baby’s first encounter with bacteria is coming through the birth canal and this is a very important first introduction to the microbial world! These bacteria will help in the digestion of mother’s milk and will begin to create a healthy microflora for the baby’s life. Some savvy doctors who have to deliver babies via C-section are now prescribing probiotics to the newborn infants to begin this important microbiome population.
However, it’s never too late to start to build up your microbiome!
What are some practical tips anyone can do to keep our digestive system healthy and therefore our brains in top condition? What about parents?
Fermented foods should be consumed every day. You don’t need a lot, just a variety. I would begin by choosing four and rotating those through the month. In the next month keep your favorite two and add two new ones. Keep rotating! Think about how each one makes you feel. See what works best for your unique self.
But where should you start? My recommendation would be to start by thinking about your genetics and your heritage. What are the fermented foods that your ancestors ate? Do any of these fermented foods sound familiar: kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, miso, kombucha, pickles? Remember that fermented foods contain live bacteria. That’s the point, right? So fermented foods should never be heated to a boil (like miso soup is kept low). Pickles should not be in vinegar. (Both boiling and vinegar kill microbes.) Yogurts should be full-fat plain; the same with kefir. And check all of your labels to make sure the fermented foods you choose are not laden with sugar, artificial colors, or flavors.
There is also new evidence that exercise also positively influences better gut microbiome! By exercising and eating fermented foods daily we continue to repopulate our bodies with good bacteria so that if bad bacteria try to get in, there is such a beautiful growth of good bacteria, that any bad bacteria will not have a chance of setting up camp! So why not go for a walk to your local shop and try a kombucha!
I’ve been focusing on teen mental fitness. Are there any tips for parents of teens?
It is true that food is often a challenge for teens and parents. Teens need good food to grow into healthy happy adults. The best thing to do is for parents to cook. Better yet, teach your kids to cook their own food so you all know what goes into it. Use a variety of fermented foods (probiotics) to mix up your menu to keep that gut happy. I tell my students to “feed your inner pets.”
Any final thoughts?
Remember that what you eat becomes a part of the general architecture that is you. If you give your body good food, you build a strong working healthy body. If you feed your body fast food, processed food, sugary and processed vegetable oil-laden foods, you will be working with inferior building blocks and will thus create a molecular architecture that is not sound. This can lead to chronic problems and eventually, disease.
So cook a meal, invite your friends, and help others do the same! Your microbiome and your brain will thank you.
Stay away from sugar and eat more probiotics; got it! For more information about probiotics you can read a post I wrote about how to get probiotics in your diet while on antibiotics, and another one specifically on making your own kefir. If you would like to read more about this gut-brain connection, Dr. Goldman recommends this article from The Atlantic. To read more of Dr. Goldman’s thoughts on nutrition, read “My Sparkly Pancreas.”
In addition to being an expert on the topic of nutrition, Dr. Goldman is also my sister 🙂