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The Gut-Brain Connection

Fermented foods help reestablish a healthy microbiome in the gut.

Fermented foods help reestablish a healthy microbiome in the gut.

by Jennifer Poa Jacobsen, RD

Do you ever have a “gut feeling” that something will happen, and then you’re spot-on?  Well, there may be more to it than we’ve traditionally believed.  The gut-brain connection has been getting a lot of press lately. The gut is said to be our “second brain,” controlling more of what happens inside our bodies than we actually realize.

Depression, anxiety, diarrhea, constipation, cancer, ADHD, MS, eczema, arthritis…and the list goes on.

But what if this myriad of illnesses and diseases were actually viewed as symptoms of an imbalance in the body?  While the research is still young, it looks as if varying health conditions begin with an imbalance in the gut—specifically the gut flora (bacteria).

Bacteria are often thought of as the enemy. We prevent them from multiplying in our kitchen, and they’re the reason why we slather on the hand-sani.  But—while certain kinds of bacteria are harmful, others are good.

Bacteria live and flourish in our gut, on our skin, in our mouths, and on various other parts of our bodies. The average person has 10 trillion bacteria on or in their body, with up to 10,000 species residing in the gut. The bacteria in our gut, or gut microbiota, aid in food digestion, protect us against pathogens, provide essential nutrients, and enhance our immune function. In fact, eighty percent of our immune cells reside in our gut. So when this delicate microcosm is disrupted, disease can set in.

How does it all work?

Scientists liken our microbiome to an ecosystem. If the bad bacteria dominate the ecosystem in our gut, they crowd out the beneficial ones and create a toxic environment.  Then, not only does our immune system become weakened, but our body works harder to clear the toxins created by the bad guys. 

Leading a high-stress lifestyle, eating a diet high in processed foods, and using antibiotics negatively affects our microbiome. In order to reestablish a healthy environment for the beneficial bacteria to thrive in, we must nourish our gut with healthy whole foods like fruits and vegetables, lower our stress level, take a daily probiotic, or try eating fermented vegetables like raw krauts and kimchi. Fermented foods inoculate the gut, once the environment has been cleaned up. And you can easily find prepared krauts at grocery and health food stores.

Though often an out of sight, out of mind force, our bellies—or “second brain”—may hold the key to better health.  Start by nourishing your gut and see what happens!

Poa Jacobsen is a registered dietitian, working in the nutrition and food safety field for the past 10 years. She is passionate about fermentation--though seemingly contradictive to "food safety" --and regularly makes and eats fermented foods.