Local medical expert says gut health affects brain health

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According to a local medical expert, gut health directly impacts brain health – which means a good diet can prevent depression and anxiety.

Julie Schafer, director of health partnerships at Baptist Health, delivered a slideshow presentation on the apparent connection between the gut and brain as part of Baptist Health’s “Ask the Expert” series Nov. 7 at the Ponte Vedra YMCA.

“We've been discovering that our gut can actually function like our second brain, and it can sometimes tell our 'brain' brain what to do,” said Schafer, who has a background in nutrition, public health and exercise science. “Your gut is processing a lot of food, but it's doing a lot more than that.”

The gut is often neglected, but Schafer said it’s one of the most important organs in the body that can affect mental health. She explained that the brain and gut are in constant communication with each other, which is why people often feel “butterflies” in their stomach or a “stomach knot” during a nervous or stressful situation.

However, Schafer said it’s possible the gut is also telling the brain what to do because the stomach contains neurotransmitters people usually associate with the brain. Schafer revealed that 50 percent of dopamine and 90 percent of serotonin emanates from the gut.

“Serotonin, dopamine, and certain bacteria in the gut are important,” Schafer said. “If our balance is off, we aren't making our serotonin and dopamine properly. If our gut's out of balance, it can make us act badly.”

Another reason brain health is connected to gut health, Schafer noted, is that anti-depressants can adversely affect gut health.

“They try to help us increase our serotonin so that we feel better,” she said. “The challenge is that it can create GI [gastrointestinal] issues also, so if you haven't to this moment thought that our brain and our gut are connected think about that one for a second.

“We take a pill, for our brain, for our depression, our anxiety, and it actually upsets our gut as a side effect,” she added. “We're still learning, but that's kind of a 'wow' moment.” 

Schafer speculated that mental health treatment can start with a good diet. Psychologists should look at healthy eating habits that increase serotonin in the gut along with (or instead of) anti-depressants, she asserted.

The presenter also touched on new Parkinson’s disease research suggesting that gastrointestinal dysfunction is one of the main symptoms trending in people with Parkinson’s. According to a recent study, she said, people with Parkinson’s had about a 10-year average of constipation leading up to their diagnosis of the disease.

“That doesn’t mean if you’re constipated you’re going to have Parkinson’s,” Shafer said. “But it’s a huge area of research because, what if we could do something in advance about constipation, and it was actually helping?”

Since people with Parkinson’s stop producing the dopamine neurotransmitter, and 50 percent of the body’s dopamine is located in the gut, Schafer concluded that it could be possible to stymie the progression of the disease by starting treatment early and combating it with a good diet.

“We’ve always thought this [neurotransmitter] is in our brain,” she said in an interview with the Recorder following her presentation. “But to know it’s actually residing in our gut puts a whole new meaning on the food that we eat and the way we treat our gut and digestive system because ultimately, it’s affecting our brain health too.”

Additionally, Schafer said that prestigious institutions such as Harvard and John Hopkins are studying how inflammation and gut health can mediate and modulate the immune response, which is related to cancer. Although it may be impossible to prevent certain illnesses and cancers at this time, Schafer was optimistic that taking care of the gut can reduce symptoms associated with certain ailments or eliminate them altogether. 

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