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.

Plastic: Birds, Beaches, and Bodies

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The obese albatross was having quite a hard time sailing through the air. Obese being the wrong descriptor, the bird had all its weight centered around the stomach like a varsity-jacket-wearing 45-year-old male. It was a quite odd site and it seemed like the bird was designed for heavy bomb drops and not quick-swirling noise dives like his counterparts. All of a sudden the heavyset bird hit a patch of hard wind and the belly was lifted up as if composed of a material that was not dense but quite light. Although there was a strange lightness to the protrusion, the bird continued to sink further and further towards the mating lands of his ancestors. Below him were thousands of little baby chicks just hatching to start a life filled with majestic days of flying through the skies as he had done so many times before. Sadly though, this bird’s last experience of flying would end quite soon. The bird suddenly began coughing, choking, and hacking, making his flight look like a shot-down-black-hawk helicopter. The crash was eminent and I wonder in those last seconds whether his life passed before his eyes: making love to his seagull woman, regurgitating food for his chicks, pooping on cars, squawking with his friends. Mothers quickly moved their chicks out of the way, elder birds looked on in horror and finally the sickened leviathan hit the ground with a force that lifted a mushroom cloud of feathers. No average bird could survive that fall and the other birds began to collect decorative seashells for the funeral. But wait! The bird was still moving! The bird was still alive, the large stomach must have cushioned the load. Would he survive this unbelievable ordeal? Sadly, his movement was short lived with one last violent coughing fit. The bird lay still as his counterparts went on their way coughing in an eerily similar manner to their now dead friend. A few weeks later the bird was still in his death spot, but now that large gut of his had spilled open. The contents looked like one of those stores that sells cheap party supplies: a toy ring, reusable lighter, a disposable fork, and a whole host of worthless plastic junk. The plastic in the bird was tangled and knotted, looking as if it was in a continual loop of digestion for quite some time. What kind of bird would eat plastic? Maybe he thought it was a new tasty food like a fat  kid salivating over candy at the checkout counter. The answer became clearer when the mating territory was combed over. Trash as far as the eye could see. The gulls were surrounded by a cornucopia of junk that engrossed their entire food system. Worse than the trash, was the litter of bird carcasses that lay among the waste-the natural birds’ bodies composting while the unnatural plastic eternally waited for its next victim.

This story is fake but the premise stands in the fact that our plastic trash has a real effect on the health of our world. Plastic is ubiquitous and we use it everyday without much thought to where it goes after we throw it away. I wanted to know more about plastic so I read Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel. The book made me analyze how I use plastic and what impact it has on my life. Plastic became quite popular after World War II and inundated the market with the promise of convenience, functionality, affordability, and durability. We became a throw-away culture and began using many plastic products one time before tossing them in the trash. Plastic lasts a very long time and our land fills, oceans, and beaches are now suffocating from its “durability.” The role plastic plays in our life is complex and there is no easy answer to what we should do about the plastic that is already in our environment. What we can do is take personal responsibility with our everyday use of plastic and try to reduce, reuse, and recycle. First, reduce the amount of trash you create by buying less single-serve food items and less material crap in general. Second, buy reusable-tote bags instead of using single use plastic bags at the grocery store. Thirdly, take a minute to throw the plastic that you do have in the proper recycling containers. These are easy steps to do your part in making the world a better place. Less plastic means less litter, less plastic chemicals getting in your food, less plastic getting in our bodies, and less depressing pictures posted on this blog.