I stumbled upon a book titled The Mind-Gut Connection by Emeran Mayer, MD at Sundance bookstore here in Reno recently. It was not a book I was really looking for, but was misplaced on the shelf and the cover caught my eye. I have written a previous blog post about the brain-gut connection and how the so-called “second brain” affects digestion. It is no surprise that emotions like stress and anxiety have a major impact on our gut, especially if you have a digestive disorder like IBD or IBS. The connection between our brain and gut is so much more than this though, and I want to share with you some facts from the book that I found particularly interesting.
1. Change the way you eat.
Studies have shown that if you want to increase your gut microbial diversity, you need to cut down on the amount of animal fat, mass-produced and processed foods in your diet, and replace them with organically grown food. You will also want to watch out for sugar additives and preservatives in the foods you buy at the grocery store. These are often hidden and have strange names that you cannot pronounce on the ingredients list. Being mindful of the food you are consuming is a great first step to eating healthier. You want to feed your body the best food to optimize the diversity, stability and health of your gut microbiota. Dr. Mayer suggests in the book that the Mediterranean diet is most recommended to people with digestive disorders or discomfort, so I will definitely be looking more into that!
2. Prenatal nutrition is vitally important!
Research has shown that the food you consume in the first three years of your life determines your gut microbiome for the rest of your life. A child’s gut microbiome is fully established at the age of three, which means food consumed during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding are vitally important. It is also super important for expecting and new mothers to reduce stress levels, as this can cause chronic inflammation during pregnancy which puts the child at a higher risk for brain diseases. Maternal stress as the child grows up also has negative effects on the development of the brain and gut microbiota. Once your gut microbiome is formed, it is extremely hard to change. I never knew how important this was and I am glad I know now!
3. Early life stressful experiences can have an impact on your gut.
There is now solid evidence that stressful experiences in early life can leave lasting traces on the brain. These changes can drive the development of depression and anxiety and even gastrointestinal disorders like IBD and IBS. In a study done with rats, when stressed mother rats where separated from their pups, the pups showed many IBS-like symptoms. The rats that had experienced a less nurturing childhood presented traits similar to anxiety and their intestines were more sensitive. This in NO way means that if you have IBD or IBS, your parents failed to nurture you. The human brains are so complex and deploy many factors to protect us from the negative effects of early life stress. Mindfulness techniques in particular can help overcome these feelings of anxiety and depression. By being more mindful of your body, you are developing a greater sense of self-awareness and the ability to regulate your emotions.
4. Your emotional connection to food is stronger than you think.
We are always thinking about food, whether we know it or not. Our thoughts, memories of past events, and expectations of the future influence the activities in our brain-gut axis and can produce harmful consequences. Dr. Mayer gives a great example of this in the book. Imagine you return to the restaurant where you argued with your spouse over dinner. Your memories may trigger feelings of anger. If it was an Italian restaurant, the thought of any Italian food may trigger feelings of anger for you. Next time you blame a specific food for causing you digestive distress, think about an event that may also be playing a role in your symptoms. Maybe it is not the food at all, but a negative memory associated with that food.
I learned so much more than I thought I would in this book! I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the connection between their brain and gut. I am definitely going to practice being more mindful of my body and the food I consume because the more aware I am, the better I can understand my body. It is not easy to make all of these changes at one time, so I suggest starting off simple and making small changes here and there. If you are considering changing your diet, consult with your doctor first to make sure it is the right decision for you. Check out Emeran Mayer’s website to learn more about the book and his initiatives.
Have you ever noticed negative effects on your gut from certain emotions or situations? Let me know in the comments below!