The mind-gut connection – and the hidden conversation within our bodies
Almost all of us can remember a time, early in our lives, when we faced a big decision, and our mother told us to “go with your gut.” Well, no need to tell Mom, but her wisdom has once again been vindicated. Science has proved it. And it’s all in an intriguing new book on the mind-gut connection by one of UCLA’s renowned faculty members.
In his new book, “The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health,” Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine at UCLA, director of the UCLA Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience and Ted Talk veteran, makes a compelling case that our mind and gut are inextricably linked. Mayer is one the world’s leading experts in how the brain communicates with our gut microbiome – that is, the hundreds of microbial species that share our human bodies. Although I have to confess I found the concept a bit creepy at first, it turned out to be quite fascinating to ponder the trillions of bacteria that inhabit our bodies and how they might impact our physical and mental health. After taking a sneak peek at Mayer’s new book, it wasn’t long before I was hooked and began Googling all things microbiome. Mayer certainly knows his stuff. For nearly 25 years, he’s been the go-to researcher in the area of brain gut interactions, and played a major role in the recent “gut” revolution. The subject of his Ted Talk was “The mysterious origins of gut feelings.” His research was also featured on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and will be the topic of a PBS Special on gut microbiota brain interactions in the “Natural Health Breakthroughs with Brenda Watson” series. He was also recently interviewed by the Los Angeles Times on “Why we feel emotions in our guts, and what microbes have to do with it.”
Mayer’s book covers nothing less than the full range of human emotion and experience. In a taut, fact-filled narrative that will appeal to lay-person and expert alike, he explains everything from the new science about how microorganisms living in your gut can influence your emotion and your brain health, to lessons we can learn from prehistoric hunter gatherers living in the Amazonian rainforest, to 10 simple ways to maintain optimal health.
“The gut converses with the brain like no other organ,” says Mayer. “If you’ve ever felt queasy as you walked into an uncomfortable situation or based a life decision on a ‘gut feeling,’ then you know that sometimes our bodies react faster and often wiser than our minds. Most of us have also experienced the same phenomenon in reverse, where our mental state has affected our digestive systems—the butterflies in our stomach before a first date, or the anxious rumbling we feel when we feel stressed out or upset. But while the dialogue between the mind and the gut has been recognized for centuries, until now Western medicine has not fully realized just how powerful and wide-reaching this connection is.”
As Mayer explains, the connection between the mind and the gut is bidirectional: The gut talks to the brain and the brain talks to the gut every minute of our lives. When this communication channel is out of whack — due to diet, lifestyle, stress, excessive antibiotic use or illness — we experience mental and physical health issues including food sensitivities and allergies, digestive disorders, obesity, depression, panic disorders, anxiety, and fatigue. Mayer is as much a doctor and teacher as he is a scientist. So it’s not long before his engaging description of the science gives way to prescriptions for improving our physical and mental well-being. His recommendations include:
- Learning to get in touch with your gut feelings
- Concrete strategies for enjoying a happier mindset and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression often associated with digestive systems
- How to be more mindful about what and how you eat
- The advantages of adopting a largely plant-based, whole foods diet that includes plenty of probiotic-rich and fermented foods
- Steps for managing pre- and postnatal stress to help decrease the risk of mind-gut axis disorders in children
- Early childhood nutritional interventions that can build microbiome diversity
- Mindfulness-based anxiety reduction strategies to decrease stress and sharpen cognitive ability
- Procedures for reducing low-grade inflammation in the body to prevent or delay the onset of neurological disease
- Steps we can take to decrease our risk of developing neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
With simple, practical advice drawn from his vast clinical experience and the latest research, Mayer shows us that paying attention to the mind-gut balance is the key to unlocking optimal health. Even the White House has recognized the microbiome’s importance by launching the National Microbiome Initiative in May of this year.