Gut Health = Brain Health?

One of my first blogs on this site was about a book called Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter – a neurologist who blames lifestyle diseases (diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc.) on excessive carbohydrate and gluten consumption. It’s been four years since that post and I have followed much of the book’s advice – I eat a primal diet that consists of meat, vegetables, fruit, and some whole fat dairy. My body is happy when I eat this way and I never have to worry about measuring portions or counting calories – this use to be a requirement because I put on weight easier than a bear preparing for hibernation.  Eating the aforementioned foods is not a diet but rather a lifestyle. Wheat, corn, rice, and added sugars are great once in a while but not as a base for your personal food pyramid. My buddy Chris O’Brien – an aspiring low-carber with a nagging penchant for club crackers – recommended that I read Dr. Perlmutter’s newest book Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain. This book changed the way I think about the microbes that live within our bodies. In a sense, we are more bacteria than human – we carry more single cell organisms than actual cells in our body. These microbes help us with a myriad of bodily functions like digestion, immunity, sense perception, and mental processes. Without microbes, we would simply die.

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The health of your gut bacteria determines the health of your brain. The stomach and brain are interconnected – just think of what happens to your digestive system when you are anxious. The rise in diseases like Alzheimer’s, mood disorders, ADHD, multiple sclerosis, and autism are being linked with imbalances in gut bacteria. These imbalances allow bad bacteria to flourish over good bacteria; this leads to excess absorption of energy (obesity), inflammation that stimulates autoimmunity (Multiple Sclerosis), and/or gut permeability which can exacerbate neurological symptoms (Autism).  Studies show that our ultra-sterile environments and antibiotic use is disrupting our microbiome. Added to this is our Western diet low in prebiotic fiber and high in carbohydrates which foster bad bacteria. As an icing on the cake, exposure to environmental toxins like plastic residues, pollution, and workplace stress can all disrupt good bacteria. The connection between the gut and the brain is most obvious in those struggling with mental health disorders – studies show that more then 50 percent of psychiatric patients struggle with digestive ailments.

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So what can we do to help our microbiome? We need to eat diets which are high in fiber so good bacteria have food to eat. Also, eating probiotics like yogurt or fermented foods like sauerkraut help introduce beneficial bacteria to the gut. Avoiding toxins is an obvious must, but don’t forget about toxins lingering in the food supply like gluten and added sugar. Is gluten actually a toxin? I would argue that gluten in high quantities – the amounts seen in normal Western diets – wreaks havoc on the digestive system and on the microbiome. If you require more convincing then I recommend trying a gluten free diet for a month – I bet you’ll start feeling better after the first week. I recommend these things not only from research studies but also from my own experience. I used to eat “healthy” whole grains and I normally had stomach pains, constipation, and bloating; I was even diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) before I started eating a primal diet. Now unsurprisingly, the only time my IBS flares up is when I go back to eating grains. If you suffer from any of the above ailments, it is worth it to read this book. You may not see a complete reversal of your disorder but I would bet your symptoms will get drastically better. Read the book for yourself. You have nothing to lose except some bad microbes.

The Strengths of Autism

It has been some time since my last post and I can honestly admit that I felt unmotivated to blog because my book club was a complete failure. The book club was an experiment and it may come back in the future if their seems to be some interest from my readers. In honor of my crappy book club, I finished the voted upon book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum by Temple Grandin. This book was good but unless you are really interested in autism this blog post will suffice. Grandin is a high-functioning autistic who has many social and sensory quirks which have limited her in the past. She is now very well adapted at dealing with her specific symptoms and has a successful career. A person labeled with autism by the DSM-5 must meet the following criteria found at this website; essentially a person must have social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive behaviors. These criteria are what doctors use to diagnose an individual with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome  which is essentially very high functioning autism. The problem with these definitions is that almost everyone has some sort of social communication impairment. Does that shy-nerdy kid who likes math have Asperger Syndrome? Or maybe that lady who loves cats who smells funny and can’t look anyone in the eye? Well, they may or may not be on the autistic spectrum and in my opinion it is best they never find out. What the heck Jon! Shouldn’t people know what they have and get help! Slow down for a second and let me tell you a little more about severe autistic individuals. A person with severe autism has difficulty processing stimuli that they receive from the environment. Stimulation can come from sounds, visuals, smells, textures, internal thoughts, and various combinations the later. Now here is the thing, no one autistic person has the same issues when it comes to over stimulation. One person may not be able to read because the contrast of the black and white font is too much for his sight while another person may not be able to be around crowds because of how sound effects their mood. It is all over the place and this is why I don’t think it is good to be labeled under the broad spectrum of “Autism.” The label is inherently limited because everyone has unique symptoms which require individualized treatment. Think of it this way, if we labeled everyone “Unhealthy” would that really help the people with that label to get healthy. No because you could be unhealthy in a thousand different ways. Furthermore, labels usually limit people and make people dwell on strengths rather then weaknesses. For example, if a kid gets diagnosed with Asperger’s he may feel that there is no point trying to work on social skills and it is alright if he doesn’t interact appropriately with other people. Flipping the label example, an autistic individual is not hired by an employer because they have preconceived notions about what it means to be “autistic.” In this day of advanced medicine we need to focus on symptoms and not labels because we have the technology finally to pinpoint issues and truly help people. Treating symptoms will exponentially help people more physically and mentally because the focus won’t be on “a disability” and will instead be “lets’s work on these symptoms and figure out your strengths.” People with autism may have social difficulties and some may be completely unable to function without assistance, but each and every person has strengths. These strengths could be math, art, organizing, problem-solving, or just bringing a smile to someone’s face. In my personal experience, people with disabilities are the most pleasant, caring, and uplifting people I have ever met with much more strengths then supposedly “normal” people.

The Autistic Brain-Part 1 and Vote for Next Month’s Book

In this month’s book club, we are reading The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum by Temple Grandin. I apologize for not specifying what page to read to, but in the future just divide the book by four and that will tell you approximately how many pages in a week. I am up to page 50 and the discussion question will concern what was discussed by Grandin in the first quarter of the book. So far I like the book but it is a little too scientific for my taste. Grandin talked a lot about her shortcomings in respects to her working memory and anxiety. She is fairly high functioning and obviously very intelligent.

The discussion question for this week is whether you think autism is over diagnosed in today’s society and the label of “Autistic” helps or hurts an individual?

Please post in the comment section. Remember if you comment each week I will put you in a drawing for a 25 dollar Amazon Gift Card. Don’t forget to vote below for next month’s book.