I would propose that everyone is interested in keeping his or her brain healthy. No one wants to end up in the nursing home because of Alzheimer’s or dementia where a person has forgotten not only who they are, who their family members are, but also most of their life experiences. Studies do show that in a majority of the cases, this decline in memory and brain function can be slowed down or even the progress halted with just a few simple steps. Also it is known the the onset of these problems begins many years before anyone starts to suspect that there is an issue. So with these simple steps begun at an earlier age, perhaps being admitted to a nursing home or long term care facility can either be averted or delayed by many years. There are some populations were brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia are very rare and in most instances the diet and life style are implicated in these populations. One of the main things that has been discovered is that there is a huge connection between the gut and the brain. If the gut is not functioning optimally it has a very profound effect on the brain, not only with moods, but also with sleep (which is very important for brain function), and memory.
What might the signs be that your gut is not functioning optimally? Well, there are several conditions that point to poor gut health. The first of these is related to problems with digestion–constipation, diarrhea, and bloating–especially if these problems are chronic. Everyone may experience these on an occasional basis due to dietary changes, travel, etc., but when these persist for long periods of time, then it is a problem because there is a downstream effect on absorption of key minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients when these occur. Secondly, if a person is overweight or obese, then there tends to be more inflammatory markers present in the blood stream and these inflammatory markers travel to the brain and create insidious damage to the brain. Foods high in fat and sugar can send signals to the brain to eat more of these foods, and results of memory tests done after these foods are consumed are worse. Thirdly, if there are food intolerances or food allergies then these are a definite signal that there is a problem with gut function. Somewhere along the line, there has been damage to the gut lining and small food particles get absorbed into the blood stream. The body then recognizes these as foreign and the immune system kicks in and food allergies and sensitivities develop. Fourthly, if a person struggles with depression and anxiety, this is a really good indicator that the gut is not functioning as it should and that there is an imbalance in the gut bacteria (of which we have over 100 trillion gut bacteria of varying types). Sometimes a good probiotic and prebiotic will get this under control much faster than the antidepressant being prescribed. So you may want to have your doctor check for leaky gut, food sensitivities, or a bacterial imbalance, especially if you feel depressed or anxious. Fifthly, skin problems are frequently an indicator that the gut is imbalanced–conditions such as psoriasis and eczema, acne and various skin rashes are an external barometer of the internal gut environment. Once the gut health is improved, the skin conditions resolve. Finally, most autoimmune disorders originate from an imbalanced bacterial environment in the gut, starting with leaky gut and the entry into the body of foreign food particles. For example, wheat sensitivities are thought to be potential source for developing thyroid autoimmunity. The point of discussing all these gut issues, is that by fixing the gut–you automatically improve brain health too.
However, how do people develop all of these gut issues? (Besides the obvious answer of poor food, lack of sufficient nutrients, amino acids and healthy fats in the diet, ie the Standard American Diet–SAD–that is loaded with a lot of inflammatory foods, nutrient poor foods, and high calories with minimal nutritional value, and artificial chemicals–all of which can contribute to aging the brain prematurely). Other factors that contribute to this include stress–which in itself can cause leaky gut. And in today’s pandemic there has been plenty of stress on everyone. Secondly, poor sleep contributes to the stress and if a person doesn’t get their 7-8 hours of good sleep (including deep sleep and dreaming) this can affect the gut function and brain health directly. And with using all of the sanitizers and disinfectants, we have reduced our exposure to dirt and the natural environment. We don’t get out and work in the soil, that is why gardening is a very helpful activity–it exposes a person to the bacteria in the soil. However, getting sunshine and working with plants also has a calming effect on the brain. Plus gardening does involve physical activity which is important for brain health. Not enough physical exercise can impact the balance of gut bacteria, and too much exercise can also negaively impact the balance of the gut microbiome, by increasing stress. Toxins are also implicated in damaging the normal gut microbiome, specifically glyphosate, other pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, and aluminum. Finally, antibiotics will specifically destroy the normal balance of about 85% good bacteria and 15% bad bacteria by killing off both good and bad bacteria. It does take a long time after even a single dose of an antibiotic to restore the normal balance in the gut.
So how can you fix the gut, and thereby improve brain health. Well, the first thing that is needed is a change in the diet, eliminate the bad stuff–pretty much all processed foods, carbs, unhealthy oils, gluten; and increase the good stuff–healthy fruits and veggies with fermentable fiber (organic as much as possible), berries, dark chocolate (at least 75% cacao), bone broth, resistant starch–something that the digestion does not break down and improves the bacterial balance in the colon (think green bananas, cold cooked potatoes or raw potatoes, and raw oats), nuts–especially pistachios, spices such as onions, garlic, turmeric, cilantro, and cinnamon, and fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi. However, not everyone can consume foods in these categories, so it is important to work with your doctor or a functional medicine specialist to figure out what is going on if digestive issues get worse with dietary changes.
The other area that is important for brain health is to be sure that the hormones are in balance as well. Many women especially during the phase of life of pre-menopause, menopause, and post-menopause frequently complain of being more forgetful, feeling like they have “brain fog” , and having poor concentration.. So there is specialized testing to check for hormone imbalances. The problem with blood testing is that it does not let you know what the tissue levels are. So salivary testing and urinary testing are both available to assess hormone status and balance of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and DHEA in both men and women. In addition, neurotransmitters can also be tested with urine, too. The reason for testing these elements is that there are supplements, –minerals, vitamins, etc, that can be increased in the diet to modulate the production (either up or down) of the neurotransmitters that are too low or too high.