How to keep your two brains healthy

Did you know that we each have two brains? That’s right, the brain in our heads and the ‘brain’ that lives mainly in our gut.

This brain is called the microbiome and it is made up of many millions of tiny bacteria cells (called microbiota) that have lived happily within your body since you were born. Together, they have around the same number of cells as the rest of your body combined and weigh up to 2 kilograms.

Catherine Itsiopoulos - Professor of Dietetics at La Trobe University

Catherine Itsiopoulos - Professor of Dietetics at La Trobe University

Our two brains communicate with each other and to the rest of the body via neural pathways using chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. While the brain in our heads can send these messages both consciously and subconsciously, the microbiome has its own form of intelligence and has a profound impact on many functions within the body. Much of this is done through the regulation of hormones produced by our glands.

“These bacteria live in your digestive system and they play a key role in digesting food you eat, and they help with absorbing and synthesising nutrients too. Gut bugs are involved in many other important processes that extend beyond your gut, including your metabolism, body weight, and immune regulation, as well as your brain functions and mood.”

From the Deakin University Food and Mood Centre website page: What Is The Gut Microbiome?

Your microbiome is unique

Your microbiome is made up of many different types of bacteria in varying quantities, the precise makeup of which is different for each of us and is constantly changing. These are mostly good for us, but we need the ‘bad’ ones there too for balance. Factors that influence the composition of your microbiota include:

  • Your genetics

  • The health of your parents

  • Whether you were born vaginally or via caesarean

  • Whether you were bottle or breastfed

  • Stressful events or illness

  • The lifestyle you lead

  • The food you eat

Your food affects your mood

Your feelings and emotions are affected by the food you eat in two significant ways. Firstly, in your ‘head brain’ tastes and smells are processed in the same part of the brain as memories and emotions. That’s why the smell of certain foods can make you feel like you are back in grandma’s kitchen. Or, foods that give you an instant sense of energy or wellbeing, like sugary foods, caffeine and alcohol are often the ones that we turn to for comfort when we feel low.

On the other hand, your ‘gut brain’ has a direct influence over hormones such as insulin and adrenaline as well as serotonin and dopamine (the ‘feel good’ hormones’).

We know that anxiety and depression affect the gut. That’s why we feel nauseous or ‘butterflies in the stomach’ when we feel anxious and may lose interest in food when we are depressed. But, it works the other way, too. When your microbiome is out of balance, it may lead to the production of too much of some types of hormones and not enough of others. This can have a negative impact on things like:

  • Sleep patterns

  • Energy levels

  • Cognitive function

  • Blood sugar

  • Mood

It follows that an increase in good bacteria can have a positive impact on these functions.

You can improve the health of your microbiome

Of all the factors that influence the composition of your microbiome, the one you have the most control over is your diet. It does not mean you have to cut out whole food groups. Instead, simply ensure your regular meals are made up of:

  • A wide variety of fresh produce

  • Mostly plant-based foods

  • Lean meat and fish

  • Fermented foods like natural yoghurt

  • Foods rich in polyphenols (plant compounds found in red wine, green tea, dark chocolate, olive oil and whole grains)

At the same time, avoid highly processed foods, foods high in sugar and the overuse of antibiotics.

One diet fits all

One diet that meets all of the above criteria and has been proven to have multiple benefits for the mind and body is the Mediterranean diet. This is not a restrictive diet to be followed for weeks or month only. It is a way of life that dates back thousands of years. We now know that the Mediterranean diet provides a balance of gut bacteria, which, in turn, leads to better health and longevity.

Catherine Itsiopoulos has international standing as a leader in Mediterranean diet research. She is also an author, the founding Head of the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition and the current Head of School of Allied Health at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. In her podcast interview on The Mentor List, she outlined the many health benefits of the Mediterranean diet and traditional lifestyle.

Catherine understands that we can’t all just ditch our jobs and go and live off the land on a Mediterranean island. Therefore, much of her work now involves helping Australians to follow the Mediterranean diet principles using locally-available produce. Even if the labels or recipes aren’t the same, we can make healthy choices when eating at home or dining out.

In a nutshell, when you look after your ‘gut brain’, you’ll feel better physically and mentally. It’s a no-brainer, really.

Call to action…

To hear more about Catherine Itsiopoulos’ story, her research and how you can modify the Mediterranean diet to suit your tastebuds, listen to Catherine’s podcast interview on The Mentor List. You’ll also find links to her Mediterranean diet cookbooks there to help you learn ways to look after your microbiome and stay healthy.

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