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How to take care of brain and gut health for general well-being

A doctor explains the link between brain and digestion, and weighs in on the effects of poor gut health on the body.

In the current Covid-19 pandemic situation, people globally are now fastidious about anything hygiene- and health-related. In this worrying climate, there’s no better time to revisit some health issues in general. The Peak learns more about brain and gut health from Dr Melvin Look, the Director of PanAsia Surgery Group.

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What exactly is brain and gut health?

A healthy gut that is functioning normally and providing effective digestion and absorption of food is very important to our well-being. There should also be a normal and stable microbiota (the ecological community of microorganisms that live in the intestines) and an effective gut barrier system. These help to regulate immune and allergy functions that are important to our health in general.

Our gut also communicates with the brain and, in turn, allows our brain to control our digestive processes. This gut-brain axis has been known to us for a very long time. This so-called enteric nervous system (ENS) is made up of a network of two thin layers of more than a hundred million nerve cells lining the gastrointestinal tract from oesophagus to rectum. The ENS forms the largest network of nerves outside of the brain, and it is only recently that we are beginning to understand how it mediates multiple signals to the brain from the gut, and even the intestinal microbiota.

Poor gut-health can affect our mood and emotions by its actions on the gut-brain axis. It can therefore trigger or exacerbate anxiety and depression. It can also affect other psychiatric and neurologic disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.

Leaky gut is a medical condition of increased permeability in the intestines, allowing substances such as undigested food particles, toxins, waste and bacteria to pass from the gut and into our body’s blood stream. Increased levels of pro-inflammatory mediators in the blood stream can cause neuro-inflammation in the brain that results in cognitive decline. The microbiota–gut–brain axis may therefore be a novel therapeutic target to decelerate age-related decline and dementia.

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What kinds of food is for gut and brain health? How so?

Maintaining good gut health to prevent problems is far better than seeking medical treatment when problems set in. A healthy, balanced diet that includes a high vegetable and fibre content is important.

High fat and high fructose diets may disturb the gut barrier and should be avoided. Fructose is a sugar found naturally in fruits and honey, and a moderate intake of these should not be harmful. It is the fructose found in sugar and corn syrup that should be avoided as these are commonly excessively used to sweeten processed foods, cakes, candy and sweet beverages. Red meat and alcohol should only be consumed in moderation. Replace animal proteins with plant sources such as legumes, nuts and tofu.

Other non-dietary factors that can disturb our gut barrier include chronic stress, smoking, inadequate or excessive exercise.

Probiotics are the microorganisms that help to promote gut health. They can be found in yoghurt, sauerkraut and cultured milk drinks. Prebiotics are nutrients that help to feed the probiotic bacteria in our gut. It can be found in foods such as onions, garlic, bananas and whole grains. Probiotics and prebiotics can be taken as a supplement if dietary intake is inadequate. Different strains of microbiota may help to target different types of medical and digestive problems.

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What do you regard to be the healthiest, most energising breakfast one can have?

A healthy breakfast is an important way to jumpstart your day with energy and keep you feeling full for hours. Consuming most of your daily calories in the morning will also help to control your body weight and blood sugars to prevent obesity and diabetes. Your first meal of the day should provide a combination of complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains and cereals), fibre (such as fruit and vegetables), lean protein (such as eggs) and a small amount of healthy fats (such as low fat diary or cheese).

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Dr Melvin Look is the Director of PanAsia Surgery Group in Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital and Parkway East Hospital. He is a consultant surgeon in gastrointestinal, laparoscopic and obesity surgery, and has a special interest in endoscopy and treatment of digestive diseases.

 

(Photo: Dan Gold on Unsplash)