Can you believe that back in the day we used to eat without thinking about it? Yes, we used to fork in whatever was on our plates without once stopping to consider how many calories it contained, whether or not it was a ‘superfood’, how many vitamins or minerals it had, if it had been processed, if it was local or had travelled halfway round the world, and (yikes) without even checking for hidden sugars.
Well, that’s because back in the day it wasn’t so important to do so. Most of the food we ate was fresh, local, grown in soil not depleted by chemicals, not laden with sugar, hidden or otherwise, not processed and preserved to within an inch of its life, not flown in from across the globe and kept frozen, not the result of international agribusiness dedicated to making money rather than human health.
Now eating, a simple instinctive activity that we have been doing all our lives, is fraught with danger. We have a stressful relationship with food, the very thing that should be nourishing us. And don’t we know it? Every day brings another diet – either a new one, or an old one discredited. We are obsessed with losing weight and yet we continue to ignore very simple and basic nutritional rules.
Across the first world we are killing ourselves slowly by eating the wrong food. We have no knowledge or interest in finding out how our bodies actually work, and in particular how our digestive system works, which plays a desperately important role in both our physical and mental health.
I’m talking about the gut – the stomach and the miles of intestines, which have the mammoth and never-ending task of converting the food we eat into our lifeblood. Many people will be surprised to learn that the gut is also known as our second brain. We are used to thinking of the brain in our heads as being the sole and absolute ruler of our bodies.
We hold our brains responsible for everything we experience in life. But in the last decade or so, scientists have begun to realise that there is more to the ‘self’ than the brain in our head.
The gut has a completely separate nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS) comprising an estimated 500 million neurons – about five times as many as in the brain of a rat. This system is just as large and complex as the grey matter in our heads and is around nine metres long. It is such a sophisticated system that scientists now believe it to be crucial to our physical and mental wellbeing. A system that huge is clearly designed for rather more than just transporting food and breaking wind.
We humans must have always had the sense that our ‘gut feeling’ is responsible in large measure for how we feel. And how about our ‘gut instinct’ – the instinct that we rightly feel to be the most reliable? You don’t need to be a gastroenterologist to be aware of gut reactions, or the way your stomach reacts to emotions such as fear, excitement or stress. Science is finally catching up with the language.
Researchers now know that the ENS is not just capable of autonomy (if the main connection with the brain – the vagus nerve – is severed, the ENS remains capable of co-ordinating digestion), but also that it influences the brain. In fact, about 90 per cent of the signals passing along the vagus nerve come not from our head brain, but our gut brain.
It is a rapidly expanding and hugely exciting area of research, if relatively recent. It was only in the 1990s that the field of neurogastroenterology was born. It transpires that signals from the gut can reach many different areas of the brain, though they can’t reach everywhere. For example, they never end up in the visual cortex at the back of the brain. If they did, we would be able to see images of what is going on in the gut! Personally, I think that might be salutary – imagine watching your poor gut struggle with the third doughnut of the day….
Regions where gut signals do reach, however, include the insula, the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the hippocampus and the anterior cingulate cortex. These are roughly defined as brain regions responsible for self-awareness, emotion, morality, fear, memory and motivation. In other words, the gut is the body’s biggest sensory organ that gathers information for the brain on our inner workings and affects not only our general health and wellbeing but also our minds and moods.
It may surprise you to learn that the gut also produces a wide range of hormones and around 40 neurotransmitters. In fact neurons in the gut are thought to generate as much dopamine (the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward) as those in the head, and intriguingly about 95 per cent of our serotonin – the ‘feel-good’ molecule involved in preventing depression and regulating sleep and appetite.
— Life Vitality Centre (@LifeVitalityCen) November 26, 2015
We now know that there are strong links between our gut and our mental condition, and that an unhealthy gut leads directly to all kinds of conditions such as depression, irritable bowel syndrome and stress. Brain scans show that when a gut is irritated, its connection to the brain can make life very unpleasant. An unhappy gut can be the cause of an unhappy brain.
This discovery that problems with the ENS are implicated in all sorts of conditions means that our second brain deserves a lot more recognition than in the past. Pankaj Pasricha, director of the John Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology in Baltimore, points out that without the gut there would be no energy to sustain life.
“Although we are only just beginning to understand the interactions between the two brains, already the gut offers a window in the pathology of the brain,” he says. He believes that a better understanding of the second brain could pay huge dividends in our efforts to control all sorts of conditions, from obesity and diabetes to problems normally associated with our first brain such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
So, how to get and maintain a healthy gut? Every day when you eat, you’re also feeding roughly 100 trillion bacteria that call your gut and other organs home. In the past decade there has been a tidal wave of research into how the microbes that live inside us affect our health, weight and mood. These microbes make digestion possible, supply the gut with energy, manufacture vitamins, break down toxins and train our immune system. In fact, about 80 per cent of our immune system resides in the gut.
Each of us has a unique fingerprint of microbes, which is largely genetic but, importantly, is also influenced by our lifestyle and diet. Different species of bacteria thrive on different foods, so what we eat alters our intestinal make-up. Evidence suggests that greater microbial diversity may protect us from all kinds of health issues including heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders and obesity.
Yes, there are microbes that make you pile on weight, and microbes that keep the weight off. Variation in the food we eat affects the microbes. Fibrerich food for example is particularly good for your gut, and, wouldn’t you know it, junk food is spectacularly bad as it only contains three or four main ingredients of which one is the deadly sugar. Gut profiling rather than dieting is now the new A-list craze – a means of telling you what your bacterial flora mix is and whether it is responsible for you being unable to shift the pounds.
Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College, London, and the orchestrator of the British GutProject is one of a number of experts involved in an explosion of research about the role microbiota play in keeping us healthy and slim. He maintains that more than anything a lack of variation in the food we eat is proving our microbial downfall.
“Once you start cutting out carbs or focusing on fat, youstart restricting your food intake,” he says. “No fashionable diet is good for your bacteria unless it contains a lot of fibre-rich foods.”
He also is unconvinced by probiotic supplements and drinks, as were the scientists at University College, London who put eight of the probiotic bestsellers to the test last year and found them wanting. Real food is the answer; particularly those that contain probiotics and prebiotics.
We know that probiotics (live microorganisms found in foods such as yoghurt, soy and miso) are essential to gut health. But so are prebiotics, indigestible carbohydrates found in a variety of plant foods as well as saliva and breast milk. Both have a positive effect on the bacteria that live in our digestive system and supply them with the correct nourishment to thrive and enable our immune systems to fight off any number of diseases and conditions.
“Too many people are depriving gut bacteria of the nutrients they need to survive,” Spector says. “We need to get back to eating real food with more diversity.”
LIFE360 is a luxury lifestyle glossy, with a strong sporting emphasis. A magazine that combines in-depth features with sport, fashion, travel, beauty, culture, health, shopping and car reviews for the high-end market.
Covering life after sport – what we want to buy, wear, eat, read and do as well as more serious issues that touch the world of sport and beyond – LIFE360 is aimed at both men and women with content that is relevant and interesting to both. A kind of Intelligent Life with a strong sporting flavour…
Issue Two has a distinct racing theme, which is hardly surprising as Formula One descends on the UAE for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend.
You can pick up your copy of LIFE360 with Sport360’s newspaper on Thursday, November 26. Here’s what to look forward to:
THE END OF THE ROAD – Our cover girl is British racing driver Susie Wolff. In 2014 at Silverstone she made history by becoming the first woman in 22 years to take part in a Formula 1 weekend Wolff will retire after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, leaving F1 without a female driver. This is her story.
RACING’S NEW GENERATION – Jennifer Bell has uncovered a programme that is run here in the UAE with the specific purpose of training future drivers. Among the young hopefuls are two sisters, Amna and Hamda Al Quabaisi who share a dream of becoming the world’s first female F1 champion. Also waiting in the wings and hoping to become the first male Emirati F1 champ is seven-year old Rashid Al Dhaheri or ‘Little Alonso’.
FIT IN FIVE – Speed is of the essence in this issue of Life360, so we’re thrilled to have a fabulous piece by the writer Anna Blundy, who investigates the growing phenomenon that is High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT, Can we really can take shortcuts and get fit and trim in minutes?
FEEDING YOUR SECOND BRAIN – Did you know the gut is called the second brain? Carla MCKay explains the fascinating relationship between what you eat and how you feel.
YOGA vs PILATES – Are you a downward dog or a core fanatic? We explore the great yoga versus pilates debate, and look at the celebrity practitioners, to help you decide which one is best for you.
AROUND THE WORLD IN FIVE GRANDS PRIX – If our own home-grown Grand Prix has given you a taste for F1 then you may want to try some others around the world. If you’re heading to Monaco, Melbourne, Silverstone or wherever else, our indispensable guide will show you the best places to stay, eat and play.
A QUESTION OF SPORT – In this regular column, our writer asks the question no sportswoman or man ever wants to ask; should I stay or should I go? When is it time to retire?