It seems odd at first glance.
Yet cutting edge science is confirming that the health of your brain is dictated not only by what’s going on inside your head, but also by what’s happening inside your gut.
It’s now well recognized that the large and diverse population of microbes that inhabit our lower digestive tract — the gut microbiota — send signals to the brain to affect its function, activities and behavior. These signals influence memory, mood, and cognition.
Surprising as it may seem, the health of your intestines could very well determine your risk for a great many neurological and other conditions, which is why keeping the gut in good shape has become a key aspect of a healthy lifestyle.
Gut Bacteria Outnumber Your Own Cells
It’s estimated that there are around 80 trillion bacteria in the gut. That’s about twice the number of cells in the human body. And for every human gene there are over 300 microbial ones. The gut – or colon, if you will — hosts more than 100 species of bacteria made up of more than 5000 strains. It also plays host to viruses, fungi and other microbes.
These microbes carry out the following functions:
- Help to digest and absorb nutrients
- Create a barrier to prevent pathogens invading the body
- Neutralize and remove toxins
- Play key roles in the function of the immune, nervous and glandular systems
- Produce and release enzymes, nutrients, hormones and neurotransmitters
- Aid in handling stress and getting a good night’s sleep
- Assist in controlling inflammation in the body
As well as a central nervous system, we have an intestinal nervous system. Both are connected via the vagus nerve that extends from the brain stem to the abdomen to allow gut microbes to send messages to the brain and vice versa.
There are so many nerve cells in the gut and its functions are so important, it has been dubbed “the second brain.” For instance, it manufactures 80% to 90% of the body’s supply of serotonin – the feel-good hormone.
Lifting the level of serotonin is the aim of many antidepressants, such as Prozac. Maybe it would be a smarter move if depressed people nourished their microbiota.
The microbiota, regarded as a whole, make up a dynamic entity that is continually changing. No two people will have exactly the same composition of bacteria, as it is influenced by factors such as genes, age and geography.
However, many people have a bacterial population that has been jeopardized by infections, illness, chronic stress, drugs (especially antibiotics) and harmful dietary choices.
Repopulating the intestinal microbes with beneficial bacteria has been shown to enhance mood, relieve anxiety and improve memory and concentration.
Improving The Integrity of The Microbiota
In 2012 Canadian researchers wrote:
“Overall, dietary changes could explain 57% of the total structural variation in gut microbiota whereas changes in genetics accounted for no more than 12%. This indicates that diet has a dominating role in shaping gut microbiota…”
To boost the health of your gut and thereby your brain, Dr. David Perlmutter, famous neurologist and best-selling author, recommends adding the following foods to your diet:
Probiotics: Foods that have undergone lactic acid fermentation include live-cultured yogurt, kefir, kombucha tea, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickled fruits and vegetables and cultured condiments.
Prebiotics: These foods pass undigested through the small intestines to be fermented in the bowel. They include raw chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, garlic, leek, asparagus, raw and cooked onions.
A gut-healthy diet should include vegetables, low-sugar fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy oils, eggs, wild fish and grass-fed meats.
Gut bacteria are also supported by polyphenols found in red wine, tea, coffee and chocolate.