“Every molecule in your brain starts at the end of your fork.” ~ Dr. Drew Ramsay (Nutritional psychiatrist).
Have you ever had a gut feeling about a person or a situation, or perhaps had butterflies in your stomach? Has hunger ever changed your mood? It certainly brings on grumpiness in my children!
Our digestive system and brain are physically and biochemically connected in a number of ways, meaning the state of our gut microbiome can alter the way our brains work and behave, giving a whole new meaning to ‘food for thought’!
In my first post, What You Need to Know About the Most Influential Organ in Your Body I covered some pretty startling facts about the microbiome, but today I’m focussing on how the second brain in our gut microbiome can literally ‘speak’ to the brain in our heads, controlling mood as well as impacting on our mental health.
#MicrobiomeMorsel: There are more microbes in the gut alone than there are cells in our bodies.
Lifestyle and the Microbiome
Hippocrates was telling everyone back in 400 BC that all disease begins in the gut, and that food is your medicine.
Life in the 21st century has strayed a long way from this ethos. Global populations live mostly in urban areas and are exposed to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs,) such as Glyphosate which is prevalent in the western food chain. We lead busy, stressful lives, with many relying on shelf-stable, processed food that is high in sugar and salt, with no nutritional content, which have been designed and marketed for taste buds and not for health.
Simple carbohydrates such as pasta and white bread are another nail in the coffin. Whilst we all resort to pizzas and fast-food once in a while, it’s worth remembering that on a regular basis, convenience kills. And it kills us with a raft of modern plagues because it is damaging our microbiota.
If we don’t feed our microbiota with the food to make them flourish then we are self-harming at a fundamental level.
Western medicine, it seems, has a pill for every ill. Drugs are adding to the problem rather than solving it – what has been termed rather aptly as ‘Pharmaggedon’.
There are 50 million prescriptions for anti-depressants every year in the UK alone.
Poor gut health is the root cause of the global health crisis we see today: obesity, diabetes, allergies, auto-immune and disgestive disorders, and believe it or not, mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, OCD and autism.
Obesity and diabetes alone threaten to bankrupt the NHS in the next 10 years unless as a society we take a more proactive attitude to our wellbeing.
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: If you fix the gut, you fix the problem!
The genes contained in the microbiome outnumber our human genes by 100 to 1 – and by that reckoning we are only 1% human! We are literally walking bacterial colonies. Humans have evolved over millennia alongside these micro-organisms in a symbiotic relationship.
The Invisible Universe of the Human Microbiome:
The friendly, essential bacteria helps us to synthesise and absorb nutrients, control appetite, manage weight, make short chain fatty acids (SCFA’s such as Butyrate, the primary source of fuel for the cells of the colon), activate our genes, regulate metabolism, signal the immune system (of which 75% resides in the gut), and affect our mood and skin.
Harmful pathogens can upset the balance and if not rectified, a toxic gut microbiome will evolve, known as dysbiosis– a dangerous state indeed.
Causes of Dysbiosis
In addition to a poor diet, a toxic environment caused by traffic pollution, pesticides/heavy metals in food, personal and household products; emotional stress is also a big factor. Because the microbiome is so sensitive, even two hours of severe upset and worry can have a negative impact.
When we are under emotional stress our bodies are gearing up for an emergency response, and need extra fuel, therefore using more of the amino acid L-Glutamine, which is stored in the gut lining.
The mucous membranes are the primary interface between the external environment and the internal environment of the body. Most absorption of nutrients and toxins occurs across the mucous membrane. Most pathogens enter the body by binding to and penetrating the mucous membranes.
If this becomes ravaged over time the damage to the gut lining causes leaky gut, where pathogens escape through the now permeable gut wall, and can travel all over the body, igniting many potential health challenges.
Inflammation starts in the gut but generally ends up manifesting in any number of symptoms:
- Constipation/diarrhea – many people who suffer with depression also suffer with constipation or dysfunction of the gut.
- Gas and bloating
- Joint and muscle aches and pains
- Increase in allergies
- Chronic fatigue
- Immune dysfunction
The Second Brain
Our gut microbiome is part of the Enteric Nervous System and weighs about the same as our brain. Even though our brain only makes up 2% of our body weight it uses up to 20% of our energy resources. Inflammation in the Gastrointestinal tract also directly impacts the levels of the feel good chemicals of serotonin and dopamine in the brain.
Through evolution our species has had 4 billion years of optimising inter-cellular communication. Our second brains have 100 million nerve cells sandwiched in between layers of the gut which regulate digestive processes. These nerve pathways go both ways, but predominantly travel from the gut to the brain via the Vagus Nerve.
These powerful neurotransmitters and sensors communicate with our brain which then processes the information and acts accordingly. The second brain can survive being cut off from the brain via the Vagus Nerve but cannot generate conscious thought.
A fascinating TED talk about how our bellies control our brains by Ruairi Robertson:
A whopping 95% of the serotonin used by our bodies is stored and produced in the gut in special cells; by far the largest store of that molecule that plays such a crucial role in modulating our mood and wellbeing, appetite, pain, sleep and sensitivity.
Serotonin is synthesized in the gut from precursors that come from the food we ingest, because the microbes that live in our gut microbiome produce powerful mood regulating neurotransmitters.
It is estimated that 60% of chemical production in the body is due to signals that come from our gut bacteria.
Food for thought…
The food you eat determines the bacteria you grow in your ‘gut garden’. Bacteria turn on different genes, and genes either prevent or activate disease. Bacteria follow the diet not the other way around…
Ladies, be aware that the contraceptive pill depletes vitamin B12, folate, zinc levels and kills off beneficial bacteria. When certain beneficial bacteria are missing from the microbiome, so is their protection from disease.
Cravings – the devil in your gut!
In my best Bridget Jones moments I used to regularly sit and consume a whole bar of Galaxy after my evening meal. I felt powerless to resist these cravings.
If bad bacteria and fungi such as Candida Albicans get out of control they communicate via the information highway from the gut to the brain that you must consume sugar, which they thrive on. It’s almost impossible to resist.
The more they get fed the more they crowd out the good guys and the more acidic our bodies become, creating a cycle of cravings for carbs, sugar and chocolate, continually feeding our harmful bacteria, creating a vicious cycle of dysbiosis and ultimately disease.
In my next installment I’ll cover the best foods and nutrients that promote a well balanced gut microbiome, as well as a holistic supplementary 21-day programme that turned my gut health around.
When you reset the gut and alter your body chemistry these cravings disappear – they did for me. Since last October chocolate has had absolutely no control over me whatsoever. Seven months and counting!
Helping people to improve their energy levels and overall health and wellness is a passion for me, so I will soon be setting up an Elite Health Page on the main menu, with links to my health articles (and others), as well as the Holy Grail of supplements I personally use to achieve elite health.
Until the next time, be well.