By Michelle Matte, MSEd, CSCS
Your Second Brain
We all recognize the link between good nutrition and a healthy heart. But new research is revealing the important role played by the digestive system in regulating your mood, thoughts, decision making and disease risk. Dubbed the “second brain,” your gut has over 100 million neurons, called the enteric nervous system, or ENS. According to Dr. Michael Gershon, professor and chair of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University, the ENS works on its own, without any input from the brain. Not only does it control the movement and absorption of food in your intestines, but it communicates with the brain, sending signals that affect feeling, memory, learning and decision making.
Heart Health and Digestion
There is growing evidence that gut health is linked to metabolic health, and that the environment in your gut is influenced by the food you eat. A study published in “Current Medical Chemistry” found a strong link between a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, or CHD, and the consumption of plant foods rich in fibre and polyphenolic compounds. The researchers attributed an improvement in heart health to plant compounds being converted to biologically active compounds in the colon. Those compounds, often referred to as gut flora, appear to have a positive effect on metabolic health.
Micro Organisms and Antibiotics
Gut flora are living microorganisms, or bacteria, that provide a wall of protection between your digestive tract and your blood stream. According to the Cleveland Clinic, gut flora give rise to a metabolite that alters cholesterol metabolism in the walls of your arteries. When you consume antibiotics found in animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy, or when you take antibiotics to combat bacterial infection, they can have a negative impact on your healthy gut flora. In a 2012 study published in “Gut”, researchers found that antibiotics can seriously alter the interaction of gut microorganisms.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
When the bacterial flora in your digestive tract are not in balance, you could develop inflammation and irritation that can cause the lining of your intestines to become porous, allowing food and toxins to leach into your bloodstream. As unwanted particles begin to circulate, your immune system identifies them as unwanted invaders, and it builds up antibodies to defend you from them. This can lead to metabolic inflammation, which is one of the precursors to heart disease.
Turning Things Around
To promote a healthy gut, eat plenty of whole organic fruits and vegetables. Avoid animal products that contain antibiotics, and opt for meat, eggs and dairy products from organic pasture-raised animals. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and organic yogurt can help restore a healthy balance of gut flora. A probiotic supplement may also be effective.
To learn more about the impact of nutrition on heart health, consider enrolling in the WITS Nutritional Concepts continuing education course.
Cleveland Clinic: Gut Flora and Heart Health – A New Novel Pathway?
Current Medicinal Chemistry; The Gut Microbiota and Lipid Metabolism.
Daily Mail: Time to get some culture! Why fermented food is good for your gut.
US News Health: Leaky Gut: What is It and How to Heal It.
Science Daily: Effects of Antibiotics on Gut Flora Analyzed.
Psychology Today; Your Backup Brain.
*Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.