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5 Facts About the Gut You May Not Know

Your gastrointestinal tract – GI or “gut” for short – is a group of organs that start at the mouth and end at the rectum. Its main job is to break down, digest, and absorb food to turn it into the energy and nutrients you need to survive. But the gut is also home to the gut flora or microbiome, a complex world of up to 1,000 bacterial species and other microorganisms that benefit and influence many aspects of human health. Here are five facts you may not know about your gut:

Your gut microbiome is like a unique fingerprint

When researchers began studying bacterial colonies in the gut a few decades ago, a myth that microbial cells outnumber human cells in the body by a 10:1 ratio became quite popular. It probably came from the fact that there are so many bacteria in the GI tract; the human microbiome is estimated to harbor tens of trillions of microorganisms and weigh up to six pounds. But the population of bacteria in the gut is also unique to each individual, and the number of microbial colonies varies widely from person to person.

gut health

A 2015 study from Harvard’s School of Public Health revealed that any given gut microbiome contains enough unique bacterial features to identify and tell individuals apart. The authors of the study analyzed microbiome data from hundreds of participants and created individual “codes” that turned out to be unique among hundreds of individuals. Much like your DNA imprint, this code is one of a kind, and a significant part of it is inherited or transmitted from parent to child during childbirth and lactation.

Your gut has a brain of its own

You may have heard about the “gut-brain connection” or “gut-brain axis,” the impressive network that connects the gut and the brain and allows it to communicate back and forth. But, in contrast to other vital organs like the heart, the gut doesn’t need the brain’s input to do its job – it has a brain of its own.

The enteric nervous system (ENS), sometimes called the “second brain,” is made up of two thin layers of hundreds of millions of neurons that line the GI tract. It operates independently from other organs, and, unlike the brain in your head, the ENS can’t write an email or calculate a restaurant tip. Its main job is to control digestion and regulate gastric functions. However, emerging research shows that while the ENS can’t think for you, it does influence your mood and may even play a role in neurological disorders ranging from anxiety and depression to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

A serotonin factory

Serotonin is a chemical that functions both as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter. It plays a role in several essential functions, including sleep regulation and bone health. But it is perhaps most known for its effects on mood regulation and its connection to depression.

Serotonin is one of several brain chemicals that contribute to an overall sense of well-being. An imbalance in serotonin levels has been shown to impact mood negatively and may lead to depression. However, despite being a “brain chemical,” recent research reveals that up to 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut. This means that serotonin’s functions extend beyond the brain and play an essential role in digestion and other gastrointestinal processes.

 

There may be a connection between gut health and ADHD

Given the strong bi-directional relationship between the brain and the gut, many experts believe that the gut microbiome may directly influence certain neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders.

A 2019 literature review found that kids with ADHD have a different gut microbiome composition, compared to healthy children. Their results suggested that bacteria from the genus Bifidobacterium seemed to be one of the strongest predictors for ADHD. On the other hand, another recent study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports found that children with ADHD who supplemented with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) had a richer microbial diversity and significantly fewer Bifidobacterium in their GI tracts.

 

You can improve your gut microbiome through food

When talking about gut health, the old proverbial saying “you are what you eat” couldn’t be any truer. Proteins, fats, carbs, sugar, and processed foods all trigger changes in the gut microbiome that will eventually impact – positively or negatively – your overall health.

Consuming foods that contain live, beneficial microorganisms, like fermented foods, promotes the growth and development of healthy bacteria in the GI tract. These foods are often called “probiotics” and can help with a wide range of health problems, including digestion issues, allergies, and inflammation. Probiotic foods have also been shown to support heart health, boost the immune system, and may even help you lose weight.

Here are some of the healthiest probiotic foods to add to your diet:

  • Yogurt
  • Buttermilk
  • Pickles
  • Aged cheese
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Kimchi
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kombucha

 

 

 

 

Poor Gut Health Might be Connected to Severe COVID-19

For decades, scientists have been studying the role the human microbiome plays on health. The gastrointestinal tract, or simply the “gut,” is made up of a series of organs essential for breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and excreting waste. But it also harbors a vibrant, complex community of trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that together make up the gut microbiome.

In addition to controlling digestion, the gut microbiome is in constant close communication with the immune system. In fact, research shows that a big portion of the body’s immune cells actually lives in the gut.

covid

An imbalance of gut bacteria, known as dysbiosis, has been identified as a risk factor for several diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart disease, diabetes, as well as certain neurological conditions like late-onset dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Now, a new review suggests that certain alterations in the gut may influence both the short and long-term effects of COVID-19 infection.

The study

In a review published this month in mBio, Dr. Stanley Kim, a microbiologist from Korea University, examined emerging evidence regarding how an altered gut microbiome may contribute to severe COVID-19. In his analysis, Kim noted that some medical conditions associated with severe illness from COVID-19, including obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, have been linked to poor gut health. Advanced age, another risk factor for severe COVID-19, is also closely related to a weakened gut microbiome.

When the gut is in dysbiosis, Kim said, it may be easier for SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – to penetrate the barrier that protects the gut and other internal organs. When this barrier is compromised, pathogens like viruses or harmful bacteria may gain access to the intestinal lining and cause inflammation and internal damage.

There is not enough evidence yet to draw a connection between COVID-19 and the gut microbiome. However, recent studies looking at stool samples have noted a reduced bacterial diversity in COVID-19 patients. Scientists still have a lot to learn about how gut bacteria influence COVID-19 progression and outcomes. Nevertheless, strengthening the gut may help protect the digestive tract against the virus’s potential effects and improve overall health.

Here are five easy, research-backed tips to improve gut health:

  • Eat more fiber: Kim recommends consuming 25-30 grams of dietary fiber every day. Fiber-rich foods like psyllium, lentils, beans, peas, and broccoli can help build good gut bacteria.
  • Take a probiotic: Probiotics have been associated with numerous health benefits, including improved digestion, better absorption of nutrients, and a more robust immune system. Probiotics promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
  • Get more sleep: The relationship between sleep and the gut is a two-way street. A healthy gut microbiome promotes sleep, and sleep seems to affect bacterial diversity in the gut.
  • Eat fermented foods: Fermented foods are naturally probiotic. People who eat fermented foods regularly tend to have a more diverse microbiome.
  • Limit sugar and artificial sweeteners: Research shows that artificial sweeteners negatively impact gut health. A diet high in processed foods and added sugars has also been linked to a decreased amount of good bacteria in the gut.

 

 

 

3 Pillars of Mental Health: Good Sleep, Exercise, Raw Produce

It’s a common myth that eating a healthful diet and exercising regularly are just for getting fit and staying in good physical health. But while our lifestyle habits play an important role in many body functions, they also influence our mental health and emotional well-being profoundly.

There is a tendency to think of physical and mental health as two distinct, separate states, but humans are social and emotional beings. Our mental health affects how we think, act, cope with feelings, interact with others, and it even influences our daily health choices. Mental health issues like anxiety, chronic stress, and depression are extremely common nowadays, and they can be as debilitating as physical illnesses.

So, how to maintain good mental health even in a world that seems to be getting more and more stressful each day? Researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand have some suggestions.

 

raw diet

Study Findings

For the study, published recently in Frontiers in Psychology, investigators from New Zealand asked more than 1,100 young men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 about their diets, sleeping habits, and mental health. They found that getting more quality sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a diet rich in raw fruits and vegetables were strong predictors of good mental health.

The research team was shocked to find that sleep quality, not quantity, was the strongest predictor of mental health and well-being. “”This is surprising because sleep recommendations predominantly focus on quantity rather than quality. While we did see that both too little sleep – less than eight hours – and too much sleep – more than 12 hours – were associated with higher depressive symptoms and lower well-being, sleep quality significantly outranked sleep quantity in predicting mental health and well-being,” said Shay-Ruby Wickham, the principal investigator of the study in a statement.

After sleep quality and quantity, physical activity and diet – specifically consuming 5 servings of raw fruits and vegetables daily, were also significant predictors of mental health.

The Importance of Sleep

Tens of millions of Americans experience chronic sleeplessness and insomnia, which can be triggered by a variety of factors. Interestingly, chronic stress, anxiety, and depression are among the most common ones. This hints at a bidirectional or “two-way street” relationship between sleep and mental health, where both contribute to the development and consequences of one another.

Past studies have found that poor sleep can elevate a person’s risk for chronic conditions like diabetes and stroke. Research shows that sleep-deprived individuals tend to experience a decreased interest in sex and have lower libidos. Additionally, sleep deprivation – which obstructs critical biological processes like glucose metabolism, inflammation, and immunity – has repeatedly been associated with cardiovascular issues, including high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease.

 

Mental Health and Diet

Just like any other organ in the body, the brain needs energy to function. This energy comes from nutrients found in the things we consume, namely the foods we eat and any supplements we may take. Because the brain needs nutrients to do its job, it makes sense that the food we choose to consume influence our cognitive functions. Research suggests that the connection between diet and mental health may, at least in part, stem from the close relationship between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract, also known as the “gut.”

For instance, serotonin is a chemical that functions both as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter. Known as the “happy chemical,” serotonin is strongly connected with feelings of well-being and mood regulation. As a neurotransmitter, it helps relay messages to and from different parts of the brain. Recent research has also revealed that up to 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut, and just five percent is produced by the brainstem. The health of the bacteria that live in the gut (aka the microbiome) that produce serotonin and other chemicals depends immensely on our eating habits.

 

The Exercise Effect

The links between mental health and physical activity are not yet entirely clear. Still, research suggests that regular exercise can help ease anxiety and depression in several ways. For example, working out gets your blood pumping, including the blood that travels to and from the brain, which can help you think more clearly. Physical activity also releases endogenous cannabinoids, a cannabis-like chemical that induce a release of dopamine, another “feel good” chemical that influences our mood and motivation. Signs of low dopamine levels include depression, low sex drive, decreased energy levels, and trouble concentrating.

Bottom Line

Increasing your raw fruit and vegetable intake, being physically active, and most importantly, sleeping better – not necessarily more – can benefit your mental health and well-being. If you’ve been struggling to sleep at night, here are some quick and easy tips to try:

  • Avoid caffeine before bed
  • Don’t eat large or fatty meals at night
  • Take a natural sleeping supplement (melatonin is one of the best drug-free options)
  • Limit screen time before bed
  • Minimize naps
  • Try breathing or relaxation exercises

10 Herbs and Supplements for Memory and Brain Health

Herbs for Memory

Nootropics, also called “smart pills” or cognitive enhancers, are a class of natural or synthetic substances that support mental function. The name nootropic comes from the Greek nóos (mind) and tropein (to bend or to turn) – or “mind-turning.”

FDA-approved prescription nootropics are formulated with stimulants and other synthetic chemical compounds. They are used to treat conditions like ADHD, narcolepsy, and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. These drugs can cause serious side effects and physical dependence, so they should only be taken exactly as prescribed.

Over-the-counter nootropics, on the other hand, are herbs and dietary supplements that leverage natural stimulant ingredients to improve memory, support mental clarity, and reduce stress and anxiety. This article discusses 9 natural performance-boosting substances and herbs for brain health that don’t require a prescription.

If you are interested in supporting your cognitive functions, here’s a memory support supplement to try.

Ashwagandha Extract

ashwagandha

 

Ashwagandha, also known as Indian Winter Cherry or Indian Ginseng, is an evergreen shrub native to India, the Middle East, and Africa. The name Ashwagandha comes from the Sanskrit ashva or “horse” and ghanda, which means “smell,” and it describes the smell of its roots – “horsey.”

In traditional medicine, Ashwagandha is considered the “queen of Ayurveda,” and it is used to treat dozens of ailments, including:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Upset stomach
  • Memory loss
  • Sleeplessness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Joint pain

But recently, Ashwagandha extract has been making its way into Western medicine. Research suggests that this versatile herb is capable of reducing cortisol levels and improving stress and anxiety.

Studies show that Ashwagandha supplements may also enhance sleep quality, boost memory, and improve cognitive function. One study of 40 healthy participants suggested that when taken with other Ayurvedic medicinal herbs, Ashwagandha could promote heart health and improve muscle strength and endurance.

Another study of 64 participants found that taking one capsule of full-spectrum Ashwagandha extract daily reduced serum cortisol levels and improved stress and symptoms of depression compared to a placebo group.

Vitamin C  (Ascorbic Acid)

vitamin c

 

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a powerful antioxidant and a critical component of the human diet. Low levels of vitamin C have been associated with cognitive decline in older adults. In the brain, this vitamin essential for creating and maintaining neurotransmitters’ health and may help protect against some neurodegenerative conditions.

Taking a vitamin C supplement may help reduce the effects of both physical and psychological stress. As an antioxidant, it plays a crucial role in slowing down oxidative stress, which causes cellular damage and speeds up the aging process. Animal studies have also shown that high doses of vitamin C can decrease cortisol secretion and reduce signs of emotional stress.

Bacopa Monnieri

bacopa monnieri

Bacopa monnieri, or simply bacopa, is an Ayurvedic herb revered for its brain-enhancing effects. Preliminary evidence suggests that bacopa extract may boost brain function and enhance memory, as demonstrated by a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. In the study, 46 healthy adults experienced improvements in their memory, learning rate, and visual processing speed after taking 300 mg of bacopa for 12 weeks compared to a placebo group.

Other studies have shown similar effects. An animal study in mice found that bacopa extract improved spatial awareness and memory while increasing dendritic length and encouraged interconnectivity. Dendrites are tree-like neuron extensions that help propagate signals to other neurons. And a 2014 study of 31 children with ADHD revealed that bacopa monnieri extract successfully reduced ADHD symptoms, including inattention and impulsivity, in 85% of children.

Huperzine A

huperzine a

 

Emerging research supports the hypothesis that huperzine A – a substance extracted from the Chinese club moss Huperzia serrata – may enhance memory and learning.

Huperzine A acts as a cholinesterase inhibitor, a type of medication that increases acetylcholine levels in the brain (a neurotransmitter essential to memory and information-processing). And huperzine A also seems to benefit individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.

A review of 20 studies investigators found that Huperzine A supplementation showed a significant positive effect on cognitive function among patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Another analysis published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews suggested that huperzine A may be beneficial for general cognitive functioning in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Ginkgo Biloba

ginko biloba

 

Perhaps one of the most popular traditional Chinese herbs, ginkgo biloba extract collected from dried ginkgo leaves, is said to act as a mental enhancer and memory booster. The ginkgo tree is one of the oldest tree species in the world and has survived major extinction events, earning the moniker “living fossil.”

According to one review published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, ginkgo biloba extract is potentially beneficial for people with dementia. Taking a ginkgo supplement for six weeks may also improve memory and cognitive functioning in older adults, found a placebo-controlled study from 2000.

Taking a ginkgo supplement may also help with:

  • Symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Premenstrual syndrome
  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • High blood pressure
  • Tinnitus

Sage Extract

sage

 

Sage extract has been shown to improve memory and support brain health in several ways.

For one, it is loaded with polyphenolic acids, which are known for modulating brain functions and boosting memory and concentration. A 2012 study concluded that dietary polyphenols found in foods like sage can protect neurons against harmful toxins and promote memory, learning, and cognitive function.

And while more research is needed, two small studies of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease found that taking a sage supplement resulted in better cognitive test performance compared to those taking a placebo.

Phosphatidylserine

 

Research suggests that phosphatidylserine, a fatty substance that provides structure and protection to all human cells, may slow down age-related cognitive decline and memory loss.

In a study of older adults with early Alzheimer’s disease, those taking 300 mg of phosphatidylserine reported significant over-all improvements than those who took a placebo. In another study, patients ages 50 to 69 with mild cognitive decline signs that took phosphatidylserine also experienced significant memory improvements after six months of treatment.

Phosphatidylserine levels decrease with age, but that’s also when the brain needs it most. The highest dietary source of phosphatidylserine is soy lecithin, followed by animal proteins and some fish. But a high-quality phosphatidylserine supplement is the easiest and most convenient way to reap this compound’s brain benefits.

Vitamin B6

Woman cutting fish

Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is a water-soluble vitamin involved in over 100 enzyme reactions in the body. You can find it naturally in a variety of foods, including salmon, pork, poultry, bananas, and more. Evidence suggests that lower vitamin B6 levels may be associated with dementia and age-related cognitive decline. It also plays an important role in mood regulation.

Vitamin B6 on its own for treating depression hasn’t been found to be effective. However, a handful of studies have shown links between depressive symptoms and low serum levels of vitamin B6, particularly among older adults.

Preliminary evidence also suggests that consuming vitamin B6 may reduce homocysteine levels, an amino acid found in red meat that – in large quantities – can increase your risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Turmeric

Ground Turmeric

Turmeric already has a laundry list of proven health benefits – it supports immune health, reduces inflammation, helps fight viral infections, lowers LDL cholesterol, improves arthritis and joint pain, just to name a few. And now, you can add improved brain function to the list.  Ready to boost your memory and brain health?

Animal studies show that curcumin, the main bioactive compound in turmeric, may increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Several common brain disorders, like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression, have been linked to low levels of BDNF.

In a small, short-term study, investigators split 60 participants with depressive disorder into three groups: one group took an antidepressant, one was given curcumin, and another group was given both. After six weeks, participants taking both curcumin and the antidepressant experienced significant improvements. Those who took curcumin alone saw similar improvements to the ones taking the antidepressant.

 

Medical Harm Occurs in 43 Million Hospital Cases Each Year

Preventive health care, be it following a healthy diet, exercising, and taking needed and essential vitamins and minerals in the event of dietary deficiencies, all can help to keep you out of the hospital.

A report published in the British Medical Journal Quality and Safety focuses on yet another reason to avoid hospitalization.
World-Wide, medical harm occurs in 43 million hospital cases each year!

It is not clear if the risk of developing nosocomial infections (infections you didn’t have when checking into the hospital but pick up while you are hospitalized) is even included in this huge 43,000,000 number of cases.

Iatrogenic illness is very, very real.  (This is an inadvertent illness or serious side-effects caused by medical treatment).

Ultimately you and you alone are responsible for your health and the potentially huge financial drain that illnesses and the medical and hospital costs to treat them, can cause.

Eating healthy, exercising, and when necessary, taking supplements that are backed by high-quality published literature in peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals are relatively inexpensive and can go a long way to keeping you healthy and out of the hospital.

To the Best of Health,

Curt Hendrix, M.S., C.C.N., C.N.S.