By Shawn Talbott, PhD
You may have every intention to eat better. But when your stomach starts to growl, all bets are off. You give into your cravings for chips and soda, again! Why is this happening? The 100 trillion bacteria living in your gut are telling your brain what they want to eat. And they want junk food.
What your gut tells your brain – and vice versa – is part of what scientists call the gut/brain axis. I’m fascinated by nutritional biochemistry: the idea that what we eat changes the biochemistry of our bodies, and influences how we look, think and feel. And we’re learning that this connection influences everything from our moods and how we eat to our overall well-being.
Did you know you have two brains in your body?
There are more good bacteria (probiotics) in our gut than there are stars in the Milky Way. If you were to weigh them, they’d weigh just about as much as the brain in your head. Scientists refer to your gut as your second brain because it determines a big piece of your mental wellness. Your gut creates most of the serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters responsible for your mood.
What we are now discovering is that some of the problems we associate with the brain may be the result of faulty signals between our brain and our gut (our second brain). We’re learning that the underlying problem may start when your gut is out of balance. If it’s not sending the right signals to the brain, it may lead to feelings of stress, fatigue and anxiety.
What’s an out of balance gut look like? You may have digestive issues such as bloating, cramping or occasional diarrhea or occasional constipation, causing the wrong signals to be sent to your brain. At the same time, these faulty signals can affect your gut motility: your ability to control when you want to go, and when you don’t want to go. This may explain why some people get diarrhea when they’re nervous.
The gut/brain axis is also connected with the immune system. Seventy percent of our immune system resides in our gut, and that’s one of the key communication networks between the first and second brain. We now understand that there are things we can do for our immune system to improve our mood.
I like to describe mental wellness as a continuum. On the left side is the red zone, characterized by depression and anxiety. When people are in the middle, they may feel some brain fog … a little fatigued … a little blue. The green zone to the far right is characterized by high energy, optimism and vigor. Optimizing your gut function may nudge you a little to the right. And if you’re already doing awesome, it will help you to continue doing awesome.
This may be why you crave corn chips instead of salads
Think of your gut as a garden. If you feed the bacteria in your gut corn chips, you are preferentially growing the ones that thrive on corn chips. When they get hungry, they send a signal to your brain to send more corn chips. That’s why you get the cravings. If you started eating more fruits and vegetables instead, the “corn chip” bacteria will starve. Your cravings will change. Soon the good bacteria in your gut will ask your brain to supply more of that healthier food.
We’re learning how to nourish and protect the good bacteria in our guts
There are several things we can do to balance our gut/brain axis so that we feel better physically and emotionally. My three best tips are:
1. Bring on the fiber! There are two types of fiber: insoluble and soluble. Insoluble is like nature’s broom. We don’t digest it, and it carries toxins with it as it exits our bodies. Soluble fiber absorbs water and helps to normalize digestion. It can also act as a prebiotic, which means it feeds the good bacteria in our gut. I like soluble guar fiber, available over the counter as Sunfiber, because it has been shown in more than 120 clinical studies to support digestive health without the uncomfortable side effects. It also triggers the release of satiation-inducing hormones, so you may not feel as hungry.
2. Add fermented foods to your diet. Kimchee, yogurt, kefir and kombucha all help to maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
3. Feed your gut and brain plant-based amino acids. Amino acids are used by the body for many physiological functions. One amino acid found in matcha – called theanine – has been shown to promote relaxation without causing drowsiness, reduce nervous tension, and help prevent the negative side-effects of caffeine. It’s a great brain nutrient. Ltheanine is available over the counter as Suntheanine.
The concept of taking care of your gut and brain simultaneously may seem confusing. Thankfully, we’re going to see more natural nutritional products coming to market to help people nourish their guts and brains. One of the first is Amare Global’s The FundaMentals Pack, which includes a product called MentaBiotics made with Sunfiber and Suntheanine for gut support and improved mental wellness.
Trust your gut
Much of what science is confirming about the gut/ brain axis has been known since the beginning of time. We talk about having butterflies in our stomach when we’re nervous, and about having gut feelings. These phrases are part of our language because they describe real, physical phenomena.
But what we didn’t understand until recently is that our feelings don’t always start in our heads. Communication signals go from gut to brain as well as brain to gut. I’m all about helping you to learn how to maintain better balance between the two, so that you can become an even better you.
About the author: Shawn Talbott, PhD is fascinated by nutritional biochemistry: the idea that what we eat changes the biochemistry of our bodies, and influences how we look, think and feel. He’s now turned his attention to the gut/brain axis. “This is the missing piece of the puzzle,” he says. “Understanding the connection between our microbiome and our brain is fundamentally changing how we think about human performance.”
A veteran of numerous Iron Man Triathlons and Ultramarathons, Doc Talbott is intrigued by how our mental wellness impacts our physical wellbeing. I want to know, “How do you get your mind to allow you to either push your body harder or at least not fade away?” That, he says, may be the secret to having more energy and vigor as we age.
Doc Talbott holds a MS in Exercise Science from University of Massachusetts and a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from Rutgers. He also holds advanced certificates in Entrepreneurship and Innovation from MIT. He is a Fellow of both the American College of Sports Medicine and the American College of Nutrition. As a Diplomate of the International Olympic Committee’s Sports Nutrition program, he has educated elite-level athletes in a variety of sports including at the United States Olympic Training Centers.