5 tips for a healthy gut. They’re in your head’s best interest
Pay attention to your stomach. A healthy stomach will make for a better brain. That’s because inside your gut -- indeed, in and on your entire body -- is what scientists call our microbiome—composed of fungus, bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms.
It’s estimated that these organisms number around 100-trillion or so, but they’re not just passengers. These critters actually work to keep us healthy. Alas, they can also make us sick if out of whack.
Dan Gordon, writing for U Magazine, the publication for the David Geffen School of Medicine, notes that at UCLA alone, recent findings in this nascent field of study suggest a role for microbiota beyond what anyone might have imagined even a decade ago. UCLA scientists have:
• Revealed that the presence of a byproduct of gut bacteria is a risk factor for heart disease on par with high cholesterol, hypertension and tobacco use;
• Found that the beneficial bacteria in food — so-called probiotics, in this case ingested through regular consumption of yogurt — can positively affect brain function;
• Shown, through studies by Elaine Hsiao, that manipulating the microbiota can ameliorate behavioral abnormalities in a mouse model for autism.
The field is promising, says Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, a UCLA associate professor in the Division of Digestive Diseases, and chief of Integrative Medicine at the Oppenheimer Family Center for the Neurobiology of Stress in the Geffen School. She’s a pioneer in the study of how changing the bacteria environment of the gut can affect human brain function. She is currently exploring the potential of mind-body interventions, such as hypnotherapy, acupuncture and mindfulness-based stress reduction, to ease gastrointestinal disorders.
As a clinician, she focuses on patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea and/or constipation. Although there’s no cure, mindfulness seems to ease the symptoms. The practice is simply about paying attention to the present, not reliving the past or worrying about the future.
“When people are having an attack, they tend to worry about how bad it will be, they remember their worst attack, they wonder how long this attack will last,” says Tillisch. “All of this impacts how the gut will function. Mindfulness teaches them to only focus on the present symptoms, and not catastrophize.”
She’s found that regular practice of mindfulness can make people feel better, reducing bowel symptom severity and stress, and generally improving quality of life.
Tillisch has also done research on probiotic bacteria in yogurt and the impact it may have on the brain. She and her colleagues found, using MRIs of the brain, that healthy women who were part of the study and who ate yogurt were calmer when exposed to images of angry and frightened faces. Researchers actually saw a change in the way the brain responded on a subconscious level.
“The bacteria that live in our gut communicate through the gut to the nervous system to the brain, and it’s a back and forth conversation,” explains Tillisch. “Gut bacteria can adjust to how we feel pain and how we secrete fluid into the gut and how the gut works.”
For all of us, Tillisch offers five tips to keep our guts healthy:
First, choose a healthy diet, meaning lots of fruits and vegetables and not a lot of meat.
Second, exercise. A healthy body will help maintain a healthy gut.
Third, reduce stress. “We know stress can reduce the numbers of healthy bacteria in your gut.
Mindfulness comes into play here.”
Fourth, avoid antibiotics unless you really need them to treat an infection. They kill off the microbiome, and reduce its diversity.
Last, don’t bother with probiotics if your stomach is healthy. “If you don’t have stomach pain, you probably don’t need them,” Tillisch says.