For the third article in the Gut-Brain series, we will cover the best steps you can take to heal your gut, your body, your brain and live your best life!
HEALING: WHAT TO EAT AND WHY
We saw in the previous article that the gut microbiome composition plays an important role in inflammation and mental illness, including depression, anxiety, autism and Alzheimer’s disease, and while we didn’t specifically cover other chronic illnesses, it is also related to obesity, diabetes, heart health and cancer [2, 35]. So what foods actually promote gut healing and will support optimal health and longevity?
Let’s take a look at WHY these foods are important.
Legumes, fruit, berries and whole grains contain high levels of fiber, along with cruciferous vegetables and sweet potatoes  which is crucial for gut health.
Fiber feeds the microbiome . Fiber acts as a prebiotic, growing the amounts of beneficial bacteria, and these bacteria love to eat it for fuel, enriching and strengthening the lining of the intestines and immune system .
The breakdown of fiber in the gut also produces the butyric SCFA, which is used as a primary energy source within your cells . As you’ve probably heard, fiber is used to reduce constipation and get the intestines moving again.
As this process happens, fiber also binds to toxins to help flush them out of the body, restoring normal gut function. Fiber is only found in plant foods and reduces the risk of cancer, diabetes, obesity, stroke, heart disease and premature death .
FRUIT & CRUCIFEROUS VEGETABLES
Fresh fruit and vegetables are so, so important for a healthy gut and a healthy brain. They are packed full of a variety of antioxidant compounds, which fight oxidation, DNA damage and greatly reduce inflammation.
Fruit and berries have the highest concentrations of antioxidants after herbs and spices. It’s important to eat a variety of colors as it’s the colorful compounds that are the antioxidants. Berries of all colors have been shown to reduce intestinal damage resulting from inflammation. The healing compounds in berries can cross the BBB and break apart protein accumulations in Parkinson’s disease, along with fighting the effects of pesticides. Both fruit and vegetables contain prebiotics and probiotics, which feed good bacteria.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale help to maintain intestinal integrity and repair the lining of the gut, while also enhancing immune function for better protection against toxins and infections. Crucifers in particular contain the healing compound sulforaphane, which prevents DNA damage, defends against viruses, bacteria and pollutants from the environment, increases the liver’s ability to detox and is anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer.
Fruit and vegetables have protective effects on brain function, reducing the risk of depression and neurodegenerative diseases. It’s important to acknowledge that while many people have a fear of fruit because of the supposed high sugar content, fruit sugars are vastly different from inflammatory sugars added to processed foods and are handled differently by the body. Fruit is not just a concentrated dose of sugar eaten by itself, fruit is packaged by nature to contain fiber, antioxidants and other plant nutrients, which lead to a beautiful food full of healing properties .
Mushrooms contain special antioxidants that work inside each cell’s energy center and exert a protective effect on cellular health, fighting against free radical damage. Mushrooms are also anti-inflammatory and are a great source of protein, fiber and prebiotics. One word of caution is that mushrooms should be cooked before being consumed, as raw mushrooms have toxic compounds even if that variety is safe to eat . There are many different kinds of mushrooms, so even if you are not a mushroom person, there should be at least one you enjoy!
Flaxseeds have amazing health benefits, but are best consumed as flaxmeal (ground seeds) so these beneficial properties can be taken unleashed. Flax has potent anti-cancer effects, while also reducing inflammation, promoting the flow of food through the intestines and helping to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol. Other seeds, such as sesame, pumpkin, sunflower and hemp, along with nuts, also reduce inflammation and fight cancer. Importantly, they contribute the precursor tryptophan to make serotonin. While serotonin cannot cross the BBB, tryptophan can, so this is a dual benefit of increasing the serotonin produced in the gut and the brain. Seeds are protective for gut integrity and also against radiation exposure, reducing DNA damage . Nuts and seeds are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory and promote brain health .
We learned briefly about the dangers of gluten, but that doesn’t take whole grains off the table. Some non-glutenous whole grains include buckwheat, quinoa, different varieties of rice and oats. Be careful with oats as they are highly contaminated with gluten, so it’s best to find a certified gluten free variety. Surprisingly, grains, including non-GMO grains, are also generously sprayed with glyphosate and pesticides, so organic grains are in your best interest . Whole grains are useful in reducing inflammation, supporting gut motility and the colored forms of rice and quinoa also contribute antioxidants .
Suggesting seaweed may sound a little strange, but you may already be eating it! Nori is a form of seaweed used to wrap sushi. Other tasty varieties include wakame, Atlantic dulse and arame. Seaweeds contribute a beneficial level of iodine, which is important for immune and thyroid function, along with fetal brain development [2, 38]. All in all, the gut microbiome of people eating plant-based diets have a very different composition of bacteria and is much healthier than those who eat meat and processed foods [1, 2].
Now that we know what supports our health and well-being, let’s examine what harms our gut, our brain and promotes disease.
All of these items trigger major cascades of inflammation in the body. Bad bacteria feed on sugar, while it also destroys good bacteria species. Sugar is linked to poor memory and cognition , while artificial sweeteners are linked to increased risk of depression .
The inflammatory oils listed above, in particular, are GMO items doused in glyphosate, damaging DNA, and are high in omega-6 content, furthering the inflammatory response.
These oils contain trans fats from the solvents used in the extraction process and contribute no health benefits whatsoever, harming the brain and even leading to Alzheimer’s disease .
1 HOT DOG = 4 CIGARETTES
While it is difficult to read why your beloved bacon is killing you, hear me out.
Bacon, sausage, hot dogs and other processed meats are extremely inflammatory and dangerous to your health. Processed meats contain high levels of dioxins, which are very toxic pollutants found in animal fats and contribute to Parkinson’s disease.
The frying of these items generates toxic and inflammatory compounds called heterocyclic amines. These toxins promote cancer and even brain damage for developing fetuses in the womb .
Processed meats contain nitrates, which can trigger mania in people with bipolar disorder and are correlated with gut bacteria changes and disrupted brain communication . Similarly, processed beef, chicken and pork contain nitrosamines, which are highly toxic to the body. Eating just one hot dog is the equivalent of smoking four cigarettes .
And it’s not just processed meats that harm your health, all meat and animal products promote imbalances and disease. All meat, particularly chicken, and also eggs, contain arachidonic acid, a highly inflammatory compound that triggers a surge of neuroinflammation.
Higher blood levels of this acid has been linked to greater risk for depression. In research where meat and animal products were removed from the diet, in just two weeks significant improvements in mood were seen and in five months the subjects reported increased mood and wellbeing, better digestion, enhanced energy and improved sleep, along with reductions in depression, anxiety and brain fog .
Meat and eggs also contain cholesterol, which we know is related to Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Animal fats promote inflammation and are toxic to the beta cells in our immune system, preventing proper functioning of our organs and cells. Meat increases acidity and ammonia in the body, damaging the kidneys and inhibiting proper cellular communication. Meats are also oxidizing, inflammatory and create toxic
AGEs when broken down. On top of all this, meat contains the heavy metals lead and arsenic, while egg whites are shown to contain high levels of mercury .
DON’T TAKE MY CHEESE
Dairy products, especially from cow’s milk and definitely including cheese, promote inflammation and actually do not build strong bones. Inflammatory markers for dairy are seen in cerebrospinal fluid, indicating a leaky brain .
Dairy is also contaminated with lead and pesticides, which travel in the blood and get lodged in the brain. Unfortunately, cheese specifically has neurotoxins that accumulate in the brain and can contribute to Parkinson’s disease down the line .
The protein casein found in dairy creates an inflammatory response and negatively affects people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
The homogenization and pasteurization process creates a “dead, high-sugar liquid” with malformed proteins that is unabsorbable by the body . The inflammation and toxicity triggered by the consumption of dairy and animal products is not to be ignored if you are looking to rebalance your gut, heal from mental health imbalances and regain an optimal state of health.
ADD: HERBS, SPICES & SUPPLEMENTS
Lastly, there are some herbs and spices that can easily be added to many meals to add in antioxidants and heal the body, along with supplements to be considered. Before beginning any new supplements, please consult your doctor.
Probiotics, the health buzzword of the decade! Probiotics may be the most important supplement in restoring gut health. Probiotics have been shown to reduce inflammation and cytokines , restore tight junction integrity , rebuilding the intestinal lining and rebalancing good bacterial species. Probiotics positively impact the HPA axis, decreasing stress hormones, anxiety and rumination [7, 23, 25]. Probiotics are highly beneficial for brain health, sustaining neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) and synaptic plasticity (forming new communication pathways).
These little helpful bacteria help with neurotransmitter synthesis, increase BDNF, elevate mood and increase energy levels . Bifidobacterium reduce the excitability of neurons in the digestive tract, activating the vagus nerve to induce calming . This family of bacteria also contributes to happier moods and increased quality of life [29, 31]. In as little as 2-4 weeks improvements in mental, emotional and digestive health can be seen [7, 23].
While each individual’s gut microbiome is unique, throughout the research Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus species have been shown to make dramatic beneficial changes in gut and brain health, so look for probiotic foods or supplements with these families. Other helpful species can include Streptococcus , Bacteriodetes , Saccharomyces boulardii and Bacillus families . To choose the proper probiotic supplement look for a brand that is backed by scientific research and quality standards, a high CFU count (20-100 billion is ideal), survivability to make it to the intestinal tract (meaning it should be shelf-stable and not require refrigeration), diversity of species and the expiration date [46, 47]. Some high quality brands are Dr. Mercola, Dr. Axe, 1MD, MaryRuth Organics and Synbiotic365.
Overall when choosing supplements be aware that there are many fraudulent supplements available on the market, with some containing toxins like heavy metals and pesticides, dangerous fillers and some not even containing the supposed active ingredients. When deciding which companies to go with, look for an NSF certification seal, QAI certification and/or USDA Organic.
A GMP validation is also helpful for ‘good manufacturing practices’, but be aware companies can sidestep these regulations. Now this is not to say that all supplements without these certifications are fraudulent, but use good judgement when choosing companies and be aware that Amazon does sell fake products.
IT’S THE SMALL THINGS
We have just covered a great deal of information pertaining to health and wellness, but do not let overwhelm take you. Every time you eat something, you are choosing to support your emotional and physical wellbeing or choosing to promote disease.
Taking small steps, like removing one inflammatory food or adjusting one meal a day, is a great way to begin taking back your health. Making easy-to-do changes and consistently practicing them is the best way to implement a new food lifestyle. If you struggle with removing the inflammatory and harmful foods from your diet, try not to view it as “taking away these things I love”, but reframe these changes as “I want to support my amazing body to live the life I deserve!”.
There are tasty and delicious healthier alternatives to almost everything you think you can’t live without. Just as your brain learns new skills when you practice regularly, your taste buds adapt and your gut-brain connection will rebalance and you will feel the benefits of loving your body. If you feel you would do better with additional help in changing your lifestyle, consult a holistic nutritionist.
To conclude, be conscious in your choices and remember that every step taken to support your health, no matter how small, makes a difference!
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