We are all developing more resilience in our ability to cope with this seemingly endless pandemic. Here is another way to give our brain and body a boost. Pay more attention to your “second brain” – which is your gut – and feed it well. It will improve your mood and give you extra protection against infection.
There is no one-size-fits-all diet.
According to Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, London, England, “The gut is the second-largest network of nerves outside of our heads and has been called our second brain. … A complex system of signals relays information to and from the brain and the gut. … We looked recently at rare identical twin pairs containing one depressed twin and one happy one. In the affected twin’s blood, we found altered levels of the key brain chemical serotonin. This chemical comes from our food except when we are fasting and when our gut microbes manufacture it for us. So changes in our microbes will alter this key brain chemical and, potentially, our mood.”
As Sara Adaes, Ph.D., explains, “Our immune system is the group of cells and molecules that protect us from disease by monitoring our body. They attack any foreign (non-self) substances they perceive as threats, particularly infectious microbes. Our immune system has co-evolved along with our diverse gut flora. This symbiosis not only creates defenses against pathogens but also helps us tolerate beneficial microbes. The importance of this interaction is highlighted by the fact that 70–80% of the body’s immune cells are found in the gut.” (source)
I certainly know this from ‘lived experience’, as they say. When I was severely depressed more than 10 years ago, I lost 35 pounds in less than nine months. A microbiologist friend of mine says, “Yes, serotonin is produced in our guts.” One of the key effects of antidepressants is to try to increase serotonin production and retention in the brain, but how about considering our brainy guts as a possible source of protection against depression?
After 20 years of studying epigenetics in thousands of identical and fraternal twins, Tim Spector has some fascinating information to share. Epigenetics is the study of the chemical switches which can turn your genes on or off. Spector has discovered that nurture can and does act on our nature (our genes). And where this happens on a daily basis is in our guts through our microbes. He says that microbes have been with us for billions of years; we have co-evolved with them. They outnumber all the cells in our bodies 10 to 1 and they have 100 times more genes.
In a healthy gut, we have about 100 trillion microbes, and they weigh about 4 pounds!
The key message from Tim Spector is there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet. Our guts and our brains are completely individual, so the way we react to foods is very different and flexible.
Identical twins at birth have identical genes and DNA in every cell, but as they grow up, their gut bacteria develop differently. Spector’s studies have shown that even when identical twins are followed closely and their food, exercise, and environment are monitored to be as similar as possible, the weight gain between any two twins can vary as much as 9 to 29 pounds.
Listen to the brain in your gut.
Experiment with food until you find the ideal balance for you in terms of mood, energy, and a stable weight. The more diverse your diet, the more diverse will be your microbes, and the more diverse will be your immune system.
Spector says, “Treat your own microbes like you would treat a garden. Give them plenty of fertilizer, fibre, and nutrients. Avoid poisoning your microbiotic garden with preservatives, antiseptic mouthwashes, antibiotics, junk foods, and sugar.”
He does not recommend any particular diet, but he does say that calorie counting is distracting and unhelpful. He does recommend you experiment with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, increase your consumption of fish, lentils and beans, smelly cheeses, and dark chocolate (70% cocoa or more). And have the occasional glass of red wine.
Learn to eat well.
Knowing this about my gut flora, I eat lots of veggies like leeks, onions, garlic, and fruits like apples and berries. I eat lentils and chickpeas, poultry and fish, cheese and nuts. I also use plenty of extra virgin olive oil and have the occasional glass of red wine. Once in a while, I have a piece of 70% dark chocolate. These foods act like fertilizer for my ‘inner garden’ by nourishing gut bacteria and creating a diverse microbiome.
I also take a tablespoon per day of kefir called The Cultured Coconut to boost the number and diversity of my gut flora. This local organic product is now available across Canada and in parts of the USA. It is by far the best and least expensive probiotic available.
For more information on this topic, see my previous article, Your Gut has a Brain.