BY DR. MARC MILSTEIN
Head to toe you are about 37 trillion human cells, give or take a trillion. You are also about 37 trillion bacteria cells. I hate to break it to you, but you are half human, half bacteria. What is all that bacteria doing living on and inside of you? We used to think the answer was not much. Now we know that most of your bacteria live in your gut and helps you:
- digest your food
- manage your weight and metabolism
- balance your immune system
- make vitamins
Simply put, how well your bacteria accomplishes these tasks, plays a key role in your health. Bacteria also line your gut and act like bouncer in an exclusive club, only allowing key nutrients to pass into your bloodstream and protecting you from dangerous toxins. Some types of gut bacteria aren’t as discerning and let damaging substances into your bloodstream from your gut. Bottom line is we want good bacteria that protects us to flourish in our gut and we want to minimize bad bacteria.
Your Gut-Brain Connection
Have you ever heard the saying, listen to your gut? There is a surprising, emerging connection between your gut and brain. Once again, it’s gut bacteria that play a key role in this connection. Recent studies suggest that certain types of gut bacteria might have a more calming effect on the brain whereas other bacteria can play a role in anxiety.
Do you crave chocolate? Very likely you have certain types of gut bacteria that send signals to your brain for you to crave certain foods like chocolate. Remember, you aren’t just feeding yourself; you are feeding your gut bacteria, too.
Furthermore, gut bacteria can play a role in multiple aspects of mood and extremely complex conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Autism and Depression. For example, recent studies uncovered that those with Alzheimer’s have different types of bacteria growing in their gut as opposed to those who do not have Alzheimer’s. There is still work to be done to determine if this a cause or effect relationship. But there is also evidence that certain types of bad bacteria release toxins and plaque like material that can leave the gut and make its way to the brain, which can cause damage. Gut bacteria is now an emerging, new avenue of hope for treatments for a list of brain diseases.
What You Can Do to Optimize Your Gut to Protect Your Brain
Probiotic supplements are pills or powders that contain what we believe to be good bacteria. This is a multibillion-dollar business. But what is the scientific evidence taking a probiotic supplement has any benefit to a healthy person? Pretty much zero. Probiotic supplements are an area where the marketing is ahead of the science.
It is important to note, if an individual has a pre-existing condition or chronic disease, they can discuss taking a probiotic supplement with their personal physician as there is emerging evidence that probiotic supplements might give some benefit for specific conditions. Our understanding is in the early stages and there is no one type of bacteria for everyone. Probiotic supplements should be a personalized discussion tailored to the individual.
Probiotics in Food
We are seeing that an important impact on our gut health is based on what we eat.
There are fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, and kefir that have good bacteria growing in them. These types of food can populate the gut with good bacteria. Quick tip on yogurt. Have you seen all the yogurt choices at the supermarket? It’s overwhelming. Not all yogurt is created equal and opt for types without all the added sugar. The added sugar seems to feed the bad bacteria.
Prebiotics in Food
Prebiotics are not bacteria but instead, these are the types of foods that good bacteria like to eat. Remember everything you eat makes its way to your gut and is feeding not just you, but your bacteria too. Thus, we need to feed the good bacteria and starve the bad bacteria. Good bacteria like to eat fruits, vegetables and fiber. Nutrition is personalized but putting some fruits and vegetables, and fiber on our plate at each meal helps gut health and thus brain health. It is important to note that too much fiber can cause discomfort so finding the right amount for the individual and discussing with a personal physician or nutritionist is important.
Here are some prebiotic foods that have been shown to feed good bacteria.
Walnuts, Berries, Bananas, Flax seed, Legumes, Tomatoes, Artichokes, Onions, Garlic, Chicory, Dandelion Greens, Asparagus, Leeks and Whole Grains. Quick tip: make sure your whole grains actually contain whole grains. A way to be sure is look for the gold whole grain seal on food packaging.
How to Minimize Bad Bacteria
Bad bacteria seem to like to eat heavily processed foods. A quick way to figure out if you are feeding bad bacteria is to just take a quick look at the ingredients. If the ingredients look like a long list of chemicals you can’t pronounce and a chemistry experiment gone wrong, it’s those ingredients we are concerned feed bad bacteria. Instead, opt for minimally processed, real food.
Lastly, we are also learning it’s not just one type of food that is good for our gut. Thus, having a variety of different fruits, vegetables and nuts seems to be of benefit for gut health.
Be good to your gut bacteria. Feed the good bacteria. Starve the bad bacteria. Remember, you and your bacteria are in this together.
Hope you and your gut bacteria enjoy your next meal!