Gut microbiota and brain enhancement

Bacteria, viruses, archaea, and fungi of the human microbiota in out gut appear to play a key role for our brain an body health, as neuroscience continues to teach us.

In this video: why our microbiome is essential to our overall wellbeing, and how we can promote a diverse gut microbiota through some changes in our nutrition and lifestyle.

"The food you consume can alter your immune responses, your mood, and your ability to process information. Since the brain’s energy consumption far outpaces its size relative to the rest of the body, it makes sense that the mechanisms involved in the transfer of energy from foods to neurones are fundamental to the control of brain functions”

By Gomez-Panilla, UCLA Professor of Integrative Biology and Physiology, member of the Brain Research Institute, Molecular, Cellular & Integrative Physiology, Neuroscience dep.

Healthy breakfast with prebiotics oats and wheat bran, berries, citrous fruits and anti inflammatory spices, at its best if it is combined with probiotics, such as yogurt or kefir.

Inflammatory response to diets high in sugars and lipids

You might have frequently heard that inflammatory responses in the body damage cells and even entire organs if they occur too often. These inflammatory states are normally triggered by high-fat diets have been found to be inflammatory to the brain, especially when consumed along with sugar. This happens because the macrophages (cells that form in response to infection or cell damage, with a function of cleaning the body from useless cells to eliminate) initiate their process in fat cells, and trigger cytokines (which function is to stimulate the immune system to fight a foreign pathogen or attack tumours). Fat from food can be recognised as a pathogen, and can trigger this process, in which healthy cells can be eliminated by the macrophages (alongside the cells that are damaged by real pathogens).

Processed and highly refined foods, alcohol, fast and fried foods, red meat, cheese, butter, ghee, mayonnaise, coffee creamer, artificial sweeteners and sugar (in all its 50 less known names* in packaged food labels, listed at the end of this article) normally drive inflammation and hijack vitamin C, debilitating an essential element for our immune system.

Inflammatory states are dangerous because they can expand from the fat tissues up to the neurones that send signals to and within our brains, and might cause their well functioning decay. Additionally, recent studies confirm that diets high in fats biologically age our minds, and so the presence of a higher quantity of fat tissue in our body: "regardless of actual age and socioeconomic status, people in middle age who had more midsection fat suffered [over time] from a loss of fluid intelligence [which is the ability to problem solve in novel situations]"

Above: the various types of inflammatory states in our body, triggered by sugar, fat, alcohol, which can be healed by a healthy micorobiota (image by Kathrine Lambert, Lotus Point)

When the good fats, the Omega fatty acids, are too much?

We know that Omega fatty acids are responsible not only for our brain health, but also for the brain structure and its healthy growth. Fatty acids are necessary components of cell membranes in the brain. However, our bodies don't easily synthesises these acids, so we need to assume them from the foods we eat. Their benefits for our brains and wellbeing are unquestionable, however, there is a limit to their intake, because too high omega 6 produce inflammation, which causes cognitive problems such as "reduced attention and less responsive working and episodic memory, as well as longer term tissue damage".

One of the good fatty acids for our brain is DHA, an Omega-3 that made the human brain mass growth during our evolution: a change that developed when our ancestors started to consume more fish, ingesting more DHA, which prompted our brains to grow bigger. However, additionally to not over-eating Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids to avoid inflammation, it is important to balance also the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6, which should be around 1:4, while in western diets it’s in the range of 1:10 to 1:50 circa.

In this video: Gomez-Panilla, UCLA Professor of Integrative Biology and Physiology, member of the Brain Research Institute, explains the importance of Omega fatty acids for our brain

How a good gut microbiota offsets inflammatory states

Even more important for our brain functioning, and without risk of "overdoing" as for the good Omega Fatty Acids, it's the mix of gut bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoa that live in our digestive systems: our gut microbiota. In fact, the genetic variety and amount of the microorganisms residing in out gut, impact our overall bodily health, and additionally, directly affects our personalities, intellective performance and fluid intelligence, and also our mental states: people with diverse microbiomes show less anxiety, stress and sleeplessness.

(from "Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function", by Fernando Gómez-Pinilla).

So how can we increase the variety of good gut bacteria?

New strains of gut good bacteria into can be introduced by assuming more probiotic food, as probiotic supplements haven't the same positive impact on our cognitive functions. The best foods with good bacteria genetic material from natural probiotic food are the following:

yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, fermented pickles and vegetables, kombucha, all naturally fermented foods that produce positive changes in our brain. Additionally, we need to provide some nutrition to provide sustenance for these gut bacteria, and the best way is to eat whole grains that cannot entirely processed by our humans digestive system: prebiotics.

Powerful anti inflammatory foods are the berries, which have been proved to be linked to both general health and good cognitive functions, because "while many fruits and vegetables contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory polyphenols, berries have more than most.”

Additionally to berries (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, cherries) it's good to consume leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables (spinach, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, arugula, bok-choy, collards), omega-3 rich pastured eggs, avocados, nuts and seeds (walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, halzenuts, almonds) whole grains, beans and legumes, seafood, chicken, olive oil, red wine, wild caught fatty fish (salmon, artic char, sardines, herring, mackerel, rainbow trout), ginger, garlic, turmeric, cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper (foods list by Kathrine Lambert, from Lotus Point, and from The Purist article "Eat your way to good brain health").

Eating a diversity of plants, ideally 30 or more different types each week, is key for cultivating a healthy gut microbiome that supports brain health: in a recent study, who had eaten leafy greens at least once a day had brains looking 11 years younger on MRI scans (from the study "Ageing-related changes in fluid intelligence, muscle and adipose mass, and sex-specific immunologic mediation: A longitudinal UK Biobank study" by Brandon S.Klinedinst).

Therefore, it is advisable to substitute cheese with a plant base version of it, or to consume types of cheese with strong flavours and lower fat percentage, such as Parmesan cheese.

Nutrients that affect cognitive function (from Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008 Jul; 9(7): 568–578).

In this video: documentary on how nutrition affects our brain healthy growth and functioning.

* 50 sugar names to check in packaged food labels, to reduce hidden sugars intakes:

barely malt, beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered syrup, cane juice crystals, cane sugar, caramel, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, confectioner' sugar, carob syrup, castor sugar, date sugar, demerara sugar, dextran, dextrose, diastatic malt, diatase, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, glucose solids, golden sugar, golden syrup, grape sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, icing sugar, invert sugar, lactose, maltodextrin, maltose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, muscovado sugar, panocha, raw sugar, refiner's syrup, rice syrup, sorbitol, sorghum syrup, sucrose, sugar, treacle, turbinado sugar, yellow sugar. (From Kathrine Lambert's 17.07.20 webinar, Lotus Point)