THE BLOG

Nurture Your Gut Bacteria -- Improve Your Mood and Health

05/28/2015 11:46 am ET | Updated May 31, 2016

It is certainly humbling to take a step back and recognize that so many aspects of our physiology are actually under the control of the countless microbes that live within the intestine. The 100 trillion intestinal bacteria that make up what is called the human microbiome are involved in countless functions that have a profound effect on our health, risk for disease, longevity, mood, and even whether we are slender or fat.

Like so many, I was led to believe that bacteria were basically to be considered agents of disease. After all, the bubonic plague wiped out one third of Europe in the 14th century, and even today people still succumb to bacterial infections. But current science is revealing another side of the story. As it turns out, the bacteria living within your intestines are not just keeping you healthy, they are keeping you alive!

We now recognize that our gut bacteria are involved in some pretty important life-sustaining functions, including:

4. Making brain chemicals like serotonin, the "feel good" transmitter.

6. Harvesting nutrients from food.

No doubt most of you will recognize the importance of the first six functions listed above, but it may well be that number seven is the most important of all. The gut is lined with a layer, one cell thick, that allows us to absorb the things we need like vitamins and nutrients while at the same time serving as a protective barrier to prevent us from absorbing potentially dangerous things like viruses and gut chemicals that can wreak havoc in our bodies. When there is breakdown of this barrier, the gut becomes "leaky." And leaky gut is now the focus of intense scientific research, as it has been associated with all kinds of problems, including depression, weight gain, anxiety, autism, Type 2 diabetes, and even Alzheimer's disease.

So we need to be doing everything we can to keep the gut lining healthy so it can do its job. And as it turns out, maintaining the health and function of the lining of the gut is what healthy bacteria are constantly doing. When our gut bacteria are healthy, we don't absorb various damaging chemicals that can trigger inflammation. And to be sure, it is inflammation that underlies almost every bad disease you don't want to get, including coronary artery disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's and even depression. Yes, depression is now looked upon as being linked to inflammation, and again, this relates back to the leaky gut and therefore, the gut bacteria.

By far and away the biggest player in terms of keeping gut bacteria (and you) healthy and happy is food. Food choices have a profound influence in determining whether or not the gut is populated by health-sustaining organisms or bad bugs that will lead to metabolic problems favoring weight gain, depression and so many other issues. Refined sugar, for example, favors the growth of gut bacteria that actually extract more calories from your food. And this contributes to obesity.

What is truly remarkable is the recent discovery that artificial sweeteners like aspartame may actually be worse than sugar itself in this regard, favoring the growth of "fat bugs" in the gut. And this would certainly explain why people drinking diet drinks have a much greater risk of obesity and diabetes when compared to those who don't. And for all these years so many people thought they were doing the right thing by choosing diet soda!

So here's how you can rebuild and maintain a healthy population of gut bacteria that will pave the way for you to achieve your weight loss goals, improve your mood, and help give you back your vibrancy.

Step 1. Eat foods that are naturally rich in healthy probiotic bacteria. This are generally foods that have been fermented and include:

1. Kimchi, a traditional Korean dish made from cabbage.
2. Yogurt with live cultures.
3. Kefir, a fermented beverage made from milk or coconut milk.
4. Sauerkraut.
5. Fermented meats, fish and eggs.
6. Cultured sour cream.
7. Pickles.

The word is out about fermented, and now they are available in almost all grocery stores. Try to have 1-2 servings of fermented probiotic foods each day. Taking a broad spectrum probiotic supplement is another great idea when it comes to populating your gut with friendly bacteria.

Step 2. Add prebiotic foods to your menu. Prebiotics are foods that are rich in what are called prebiotic fiber. This is a special type of fiber that actually serves to fuel the growth and activity of the good bugs in the gut. Our ancestors ate as much as 135 grams of prebiotic fiber each day whereas Americans these days only consume around 5 grams on a daily basis. You can amp up your consumption of prebiotic fiber, and change your gut bacteria for the better by adding healthy prebiotic containing foods to your daily menu. Great sources of prebiotic fiber include:

1. Jicama, or Mexican yam.
2. Chicory root.
3. Dandelion greens.
4. Jerusalem artichoke.
5. Onions.
6. Garlic.
7. Asparagus.

I recommend 2 servings of prebiotic rich foods each day.

I am a neurologist. And in my 30+ years of dealing with patients with issues like depression and brain fog as well as an inability to lose weight, the program outlined above has proven to be the most powerful treatment strategy I've ever recommended!

Food. Who knew?