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.

Sugar and Gluten: America’s Most Wanted

Would it be an exaggeration to say that sugar and gluten are poisoning most Americans? I would argue that both of these substances, albeit natural, are toxic in levels that are regularly consumed in the United States. As a Registered Dietitian, I have strong views about the subject of nutrition and what merits a “healthy” diet. I am an indomitable supporter of the primal/paleo lifestyle because it makes evolutionary sense. For 95% of human existence the amount of grains, gluten, sugar, and general carbohydrates in the diet was negligible. Today the typical diet of westernized countries includes all those aforementioned categories as staples. Am I extreme in my thinking, a rogue dietitian hell bent on smacking cupcakes out of children’s hands? For a long time I thought so, but I think the medical community is slowly coming around.

One of those coming around in the medical community is David Perlmutter MD, a highly-acclaimed neurologist, who wrote the book Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers. Going into this book I thought I knew the gamut of negative effects that wheat, carbs, and sugar had on the body; however, I had no idea how drastically these compounds affected the brain. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and causes either obvious or subtle inflammation throughout the body. Obvious cases include explosive diarrhea in those with Celiac Disease, subtle cases include bumpy skin or annoying headaches in those with sensitivities. Gluten can affect the brain and body by causing inflammation in the intestines which elicits an immune response and subsequent systemic inflammation. Also, gluten can enter the bloodstream partially digested and act as an exorphin in the brain (think addiction) or deposit in joints, skin, or countless other organ systems. In addition to gluten, excess carbohydrates can cause high blood sugar which results in protein glycation in the blood vessels throughout the body-including the brain. Glycation is a very bad thing because it inhibits neurotransmitter function, and decreases overall cognitive function. A gluten free diet has been shown to be more effective then prescription medications in those suffering with ADHD, Schizophrenia, dementia, Alzheimer’s (delaying the onset), and depression. That last sentence alone is enough to say, “crap Jon why am I eating this piece of bread!” 

Another point that I need to harp about is that saturated fat is not bad for you! Saturated fat does not cause high cholesterol or heart disease….period. Watch the informative video I posted for a little history on how we came upon this scientific lie. The cause of heart disease is extremely complex and is mainly from inflammation and oxidized proteins circulating in the blood. This oxidation is caused by a myriad of things including gluten, Omega-6 fatty acids, and trans fat. High cholesterol compared to low total cholesterol is actually found to decrease mortality, increase cognitive function, and decrease risk of depression. If all of these points make you want to curl up into a vegan ball of fear then you should pick up Grain Brain, Wheat Belly, The Primal Blueprint, or Paleo Manifesto. So my prescription to my readers is simple: Try your best to avoid grains, processed oils, eat less than 100 grams of carbs a day, lift weights regularly, walk in nature regularly, sprint once a week, and get plenty of sleep. So get rid of the gluten and excess carbs so you can start feeling like the best version of yourself.