What you eat matters. For kids (and adults) with learning differences, ADHD, ASD, anxiety, and other challenges, it often matters even more. That’s why it’s especially important that students at Wye River are cognizant of what they put into their bodies.
In order for our bodies to make healthy immune cells, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, etc., it must have the necessary ingredients. You can’t make sourdough bread without a starter, right? Similarly, your body can’t consistently make healthy neurotransmitters (or hormones, etc.) from a diet of highly refined or processed foods.
When our food arrives in our gut or intestinal tract, it is met by a host of microbes. These microbes include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms, commonly referred to as our gut microbiome. The gut microbiome has more cells than the human body and weighs as much as our brain. Many scientists consider it to be an organ unto itself.
The connection between the gut and brain is a two-way street. When you feel sick to your stomach, how good are your levels of concentration and focus? What about your cognitive function? Conversely, at the thought of doing our taxes, how many of us get, literally, sick to our stomachs? There is a physiological connection between the gut and the brain, and signals are sent in both directions.
In studies, researchers have swapped gut microbiomes of anxious mice and calm mice. Fascinatingly, the anxious mice become calm, once they’ve been inoculated with the gut bacteria from calm mice. The reverse is true as well.
In 2008, the SMILES trial was the first randomized controlled trial (the “gold standard” in research) to assess the effectiveness of a specific diet on depression in humans. All the participants had moderate to severe depression and in just 12 weeks on a modified Mediterranean diet, the diet group showed a significant improvement in their depression symptoms, with one-third of the group categorized to be in remission!
How is it possible that simple dietary changes could have such a profound effect on the brain and mental health? The answer lies, literally, in the gut microbiome.
Between 80-90% of serotonin (a “feel good” hormone associated with happiness) is made in the gut by our bacteria. Our gut bacteria also play a role in creating dopamine (affects impulsivity), GABA (low levels of GABA have been linked to ADHD, anxiety, and mood disorders), melatonin (helps us fall asleep), acetylcholine (critical for a healthy functioning brain), and many others.
The single most powerful predictor of a healthy gut microbiome is a diversity of minimally processed plants in your diet (e.g. vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and seeds).
So what can you do? To get started successfully, choose just one of these:
Start small. Add one more vegetable to one of your meals (or snacks) each day.
Eat the rainbow. If you’re already eating a fair amount of vegetables, aim to eat at least five per day and make them all different colors.
Control your environment. If you want to eat fewer processed foods, keep them out of the house. Research has shown willpower is a limited resource. Make it easy on yourself and reduce your access to highly refined, processed foods by not bringing it home.
Diversify your diet. Each week eat one food you don’t normally eat. Pick something interesting from the grocery store or farmer’s market. Ask the farmer how they prepare the food or Google some recipes.
Become aware. How do you (or your child) feel and act after eating certain foods? How do you feel while eating certain foods?
Tune into your stress level. Stress plays a major role in the makeup of a healthy microbiome.
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Svoboda E. (2020). Could the gut microbiome be linked to autism?. Nature, 577(7792), S14–S15. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-00198-y
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Leclercq, S., Forsythe, P., & Bienenstock, J. (2016). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Does the Gut Microbiome Hold the Key?. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 61(4), 204–213. https://doi.org/10.1177/0706743716635535