While every day seems to bring encouraging health news with exciting breakthroughs for everything from heart disease to cancer, when it comes to brain issues, there’s not much in the inbox. Researchers by and large remain stymied when it comes to finding meaningful interventions for a vast array of brain disorders, despite ever-increasing funding for projects looking deep into the brain’s innermost structure and chemistry.
But it may well be that this is precisely why the answers we seek remain elusive. We may well be looking in the wrong place.
When asked why he robbed banks, Slick Willie Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is!” So the notion that our sorely needed solutions to the mysteries of brain ailments might reside outside the nervous system might well seem counterintuitive. But what has now come to light, thanks to the work of some of the world’s most forward-thinking scientists, is a body of knowledge that clearly defines the fundamentally important role of the gut bacteria in determining the brain’s destiny.
Yes, the 100 trillion bugs that live in the gut are actively involved in so many aspects of our physiology that directly affect the brain’s function moment to moment. They also influence the brain’s long term health and resistance to disease.
The resident microbes within the body, collectively called the microbiome, regulate inflammation, immunity, production of various vitamins, detoxification, carbohydrate metabolism, and even the production of important neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. These are fundamental processes for general health, and for the brain in particular. As such, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has established the Human Microbiome Project, a $140 million endeavor to explore how changes in the microbiome correlate with disease.
Publications now reveal that across the spectrum of brain disorders, from Alzheimer’s to autism to multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, migraines, depression, and anxiety, unique patterns of the gut bacteria are seen that correlate with specific diseases. For example, several researchers have identified a unique array of gut bacteria characteristic of autism and another completely different pattern that may identify Parkinson’s disease.
I recently attended a Harvard lecture by Dr. Max Nieuwdorp who has published extensively dealing with the role of gut bacteria in regulating metabolism. He's particularly interested in type 2 diabetes, a powerful risk factor for dementia, and how changes in the gut bacteria are profoundly related to this disease. He went on to describe how he has actually reversed many of the biomarkers associated with diabetes by essentially rebooting the microbiome of the diabetic patients. This was accomplished in his laboratory in more than 250 patients through a procedure called fecal microbial transplant (FMT), in which healthy lean individuals actually donate their stool that is then inserted into the colon of the diabetic patients.
Clearly, this idea raises eyebrows. But FMT is already being performed right here in America in over 150 hospitals to correct another form of gut bacterial imbalance, a diarrheal illness called Clostridium difficile. And it's far and away the most effective therapy ever developed for this condition.
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease. And with the understanding that the gut bacteria are highly influential when it comes to immune function, Australian researchers have performed FMT as treatment for MS, with encouraging results. In fact, right here in America, the University of Arizona has just completed recruiting patients to explore the effectiveness of FMT as a treatment for autism.
FMT aside, there are, fortunately, other less aggressive ways of changing the gut bacteria. In an elegant experiment conducted by Dr. Emeran Mayer at UCLA, a group of women were given either a placebo, a milk product, or a milk product enriched with various probiotic bacteria. After four weeks, the participants underwent a special MRI scan of the brain that measured brain activity while they were shown distressing images of faces. There was a remarkable change in the brain’s activation in the women who consumed the probiotics in comparison to the other groups, basically indicating that a calming effect had been induced by the ingested bacteria. Imagine, probiotic bacteria changing the way we respond to the world around us!
With this understanding of how much our overall health and our brain health are influenced by the state of our resident bacteria, it’s clear we should do everything we can to nurture our microbiome.
Here are eight important things you can do to rebuild and protect your symbiotic bacterial friends:
1. Restrict the use of antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.
Antibiotics are useless in treating the common cold and in the treatment of viral infections in general. To be clear, antibiotics prescribed day in and day out by your neighborhood walk-in clinic for everything from a sore throat to the sniffles are generally “broad-spectrum,” meaning that they wipe out all kinds of bacteria, both good and bad.
2. Add probiotic-rich, fermented foods to your diet.
Kimchee, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, fermented vegetables and kombucha are rich, natural sources of health-enhancing probiotic bacteria.
3. Make sure you get prebiotic fiber.
Prebiotic fiber enhances the growth of your resident probiotic organisms. Foods rich in prebiotic fiber include chicory root, dandelion greens, onions, garlic, jicama (Mexican yam), and Jerusalem artichoke. Acacia gum is a highly effective prebiotic available as a supplement in health food stores
4. Consider taking a probiotic supplement.
While there are countless species of probiotics offered up in supplement stores, key players to look for include: Lactobaccilus plantarum, Lactobaccilus acidophilus, Bifidibacterium longum and Lactobaccilus brevis.
5. Reduce your consumption of sugar and carbs.
Diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates favor an imbalance in the gut bacteria that's associated with inflammation and risk for diabetes.
6. Buy products that are non-GMO.
One of the main reasons food crops are genetically modified is to make them resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup® has been shown to induce significant changes in the microbiome.
7. Stop using aspartame.
Aspartame leads to dramatic changes in the microbiome that have been correlated with significant increased risk for developing diabetes — even more so when compared to sugar-sweetened foods.
8. Restrict gluten consumption.
Gluten enhances the permeability of the gut lining, allowing inflammation-producing bacterial contents into the systemic circulation.
Photo Credit: Getty Images