Healthy Gut, Healthy Brain

Our brain lives in a symbiotic relationship with the bugs in our gut.

Posted Apr 23, 2015

Our brain lives in a symbiotic relationship with the bugs in our gut.  Whatever we eat, they eat.   In return, they help our brain function optimally in a variety of ways.  During the past few years, it has become increasingly apparent that in the absence of bacteria humans would never have evolved to our current level of cognitive performance.  Our brains are profoundly dependent upon a wide range of chemicals produced by these gut bugs.  For example, without these gut microbes our brains do not correctly develop the serotonin neurons that play a key role in the control of emotion (Molecular Psychiatry 2013;18:666-673).

For every one of your big human cells, roughly 100 to 1000 little bugs live alongside and inside of you. If you were to count all of the cells on and inside of you that are not actually YOU, they would number in the hundreds of trillions, with approximately one million of these microbes living within every square centimeter of your skin!  These bugs were not simply along for the ride as we became the dominant species on this planet; they made the journey possible.  As soon as individual cells evolved into fully multicellular organisms during the Cambrian period about 500 million years ago they quickly discovered the fantastic survival benefits of fully integrating themselves; once there, they never left. 

The total weight of the many trillions bugs that reside in your gut is over two pounds and they are multiplying constantly thanks to all of the nutrients you are providing them; they are also in a constant battle for survival.  The viruses in your gut kill so many bacteria every minute that their carcasses account for about sixty percent of the dry mass of your feces (now you know what is in there!).

Gut bacteria produce many different chemicals that can influence brain function (Current Opinion Microbiology 2013;16:246-254). They convert the complex carbohydrates in our diet to the fatty acids butyrate, acetate and propionate.  Butyrate can easily leave the gut and enter the brain, where it can influence the levels of the BDNF.  BDNF plays a critical role in the birth and survival of neurons and the ability of the brain to learn and remember.  Reduced levels of BDNF are correlated with impaired cognitive function and depression.

Gut bacteria also produce the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, dopamine, acetylcholine and GABA; although these molecules cannot cross the blood brain barrier, they indirectly affect brain function via their actions at the vagus nerve (J Psychiatric Res 2015;63:1-9).  The presence of the bacterium Bifidobacerium infantis 35624 has an antidepressant effect in animal models of depression due to its ability to release tryptophan, a precursor to the production of serotonin.  Accumulating evidence suggests that gut bugs play key roles in both the developing and mature nervous system and may contribute to emotional and behavioral disorders as well as numerous neurodegenerative diseases.

We need to take good care of these bugs so that they will take good care of our brains.  Consuming prebiotics and probiotics can help us to maintain a healthy diversity within the bug environment. For example, elderly and frail humans who have major cognitive impairments also have the lowest level of bug diversity in their guts (Nature 2012;488:178-184). Can we manipulate their world in order to improve our health?  Yes. 

Diabetes and the metabolic syndrome are well-known risk factors for developing dementia.  A recent study discovered that consumption of Lactobacillus acidophilus and nutritional supplements combining probiotics and prebiotics for six weeks had significant positive effects on the level of serum insulin, C-reactive protein and uric acid (Clinical Nutrition 2014;33:198-203). Humans fed a mixture of probiotics containing Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175 for thirty days had reduced production of the stress hormone cortisol.  Clearly, the bugs in your gut can positively or negatively influence your mental function and stress response; it is definitely worth your effort to keep them very happy with a healthy diet.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food, 2nd Edition, 2015 (Oxford University Press)

TED talk: The Brain Cafe

More Posts