The Gut-Brain Connection: Mental Wellness Linked to Diet in Many Ways
Nov 01, 2016 11:48PM
● By David L. Johnston
The brain is the most complex organ of the body. Keeping it healthy is critical, especially as we get older. There are many known causes of poor brain function, including poor diet, nutrient deficiencies, heavy metals and toxins, food allergies and leaky gut syndrome, concussions and trauma, toxic thoughts, genetics, poor sleep and other factors. These issues can lead to inflammation in the brain and affect our everyday brain function and mental well-being. The incidence of neurodegenerative and autoimmune conditions—such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s—are increasing in our society. The prevalence of migraines, depression, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are also on the rise. Fortunately, there are several natural ways to keep our brains healthy at any stage in our lives; research is showing that our diet is the most important.
Our gut is intricately connected to our brains. There is a tremendous amount of research on the intestinal microbiome, which refers to the intestinal bacteria—or microbes— and their metabolites and how this complex system interacts to affect our health. Up to 70 percent of our immune system is actually located in our gastrointestinal tract. In addition to our brains, there is an enteric nervous system embedded in the wall of our gut; it contains 500 million neurons and is thought to be largely responsible for our “gut instincts”. It helps respond to environmental threats and sends information to our brains, which then affects our well-being. This communication between our “two brains” runs both ways and is the pathway for how foods affect our moods. For example, fatty foods make us feel good because fatty acids are detected by cell receptors in the lining of our gut; this then sends “warm and fuzzy” nerve signals to our brain from the neurotransmitter serotonin produced in the gut.
It has been estimated that at least 10,000 distinct species of microorganisms cohabit the human gut. Our gut’s bacteria may as well be considered an organ in their own right. And these bacteria are just as vital to our health as our heart, lungs, liver and brain. The latest science tells us the intestinal flora that take up residence on the delicate folds of our intestinal walls do the following…aid in digestion and the absorption of nutrients; create a physical barrier against potential invaders, such as bad bacteria (pathogenic flora), harmful viruses and parasites; act as a detoxification machine, preventing infections and neutralizing toxins from food; profoundly influence the immune system’s response by controlling certain immune cells and preventing autoimmunity; and produce and release enzymes, vitamins and neurotransmitters.
Two key mechanisms that lead to brain degeneration are chronic inflammation and the action of free radicals. A major cause of inflammation stems from a loss of gut integrity or leaky gut. This involves increased gut permeability, such as when the gut is exposed to gliandin, a protein found in gluten. However the blood-brain barrier also becomes more permeable in response to gluten exposure, allowing inflammatory molecules like cytokines and lipopolysaccharide to enter the brain. In Alzheimer’s patients, there is a direct correlation between the elevated inflammatory biochemical markers called cytokines (such as C-reactive protein and interleukin six), tumor necrosis factor alpha and the degree of cognitive impairment. Eating too many refined sugars and carbohydrates raises the blood sugar and can stir up inflammation in the bloodstream. This has been shown to significantly increase the risk for the development of untreatable dementia.
Proper nutrition and diet is essential to keeping the gut and brain working in balance. The Greek physician and father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, first said: “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” The best foods to boost brain power include healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, grass-fed organic dairy products, blueberries, vegetables, fermented foods (yogurt, pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha tea), non-gluten grains (millet, quinoa, rice, amaranth, teff). Foods like red wine, tea, coffee and dark chocolate in moderation contain flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants. It is also important to drink filtered (non-chlorinated) water. Notice that sugar and processed carbohydrates are not included.
Supplements can be very beneficial to assist in gut and brain health. There are five core species of probiotics that are beneficial: lactobacillus plantarum, lactobacillus acidophilus, lactobacillus brevis, bifidobacterium lactis and bifidobacterium longum. In his book, “Brain Maker”, Dr. David Perlmutter discusses using oral probiotics and even greater success administering probiotics directly into the colon using an enema. He states it’s one of the most powerfully therapeutic interventions he has ever employed in his more than 30 years of practicing medicine and in dealing with brain problems. This is, of course, something to be discussed with the treating physician.
Additional supplements to consider that help establish and sustain a healthy and balanced microbial community in the gut include DHA, turmeric, coconut oil, alpha lipoic acid and vitamin D.
One of the therapies that can help to restore and balance brain function is cranial osteopathy. This treatment is performed by an osteopathic physician; it includes a series of hands-on manipulations of the bones and tissues aimed at restoring the body back to health. An osteopath will work on what’s called the “dura mater”, which is one of the protective layers around the spinal cord that also cushions the brain inside the skull. Other osteopathic techniques include gently manipulating the cranial bones at the base of the skull and on the head around the ears. One goal with these techniques is to restore the flow of cerebrospinal fluid through the central nervous system, which will promote healing. Skilled osteopaths can feel the rhythm of cerebrospinal fluid and neurological activity in the body with their hands and through light, gentle palpation.
Other helpful therapies for brain function support include meditation, neurofeedback, exercise, psychological support and medication.
David L. Johnston, DO, is a board certified osteopathic physician in neuromusculoskeletal medicine and osteopathic manipulative medicine. He is a diplomate of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine and holds additional certification in cranial osteopathy. He practices at the Osteopathic Wellness Center, located in Ridgefield. Connect at OsteopathicWellness.net and 203-438-9915. See Community Resource Guide listing, page 60.