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The link between brain disease and our gut

James Joel

The hip bone is connected to the back bone. The back bone is connected to the chest bone. But is the brain connected to the gut?

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. David Perlmutter sits down to discuss the connection between gut and brain health. Perlmutter is an associate professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine, a board-certified neurologist and fellow of the American College of Nutrition.

He's the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller "Grain Brain" and his latest book is "Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain – For Life."

The brain and the gut (the large and small intestines) are impacted by food. What we eat directly affects the functioning of both organs.

“We have known this for quite some time that the brain is really reflective in terms of its functionality and health of the foods that we consume,” Perlmutter says.

But a new study has dug deeper into the brain/gut connection and how important it may be.

“Aside from providing the fats that the brain needs, etc., the foods we consume affect the balance, array and diversity of the bacteria in the intestines. Then, secondarily, that affects brain health, functionality and longer term risk for disease.”

For years neurologists have been studying the brain in order to understand neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s but have yet to find the answer.

The field of neurology has always been about one thing: diagnosis. Perlmutter admits that neurology runs under the idea of “diagnose and adios,” meaning that neurology has been devoid of treatments or cures.

This study of gut bacteria and its translation into brain functionality is bringing new light on the field however.

“It may seem contradictory to go outside the brain if you are trying to find answers to brain disorders, but it’s not. The answer isn’t there, it is elsewhere,” continues Perlmutter. “It is in the gut.”

By studying gut bacteria and brain activity, neurologists have found one underlying similarity to disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, multiple sclerosis, etc. That similarity is inflammation.

“All of these neurodegenerative issues, even depression, are fundamentally inflammatory disorders having their genesis be imbalances of the gut bacteria,” Perlmutter says. “The same chemicals of inflammation that you would find elevated in a person with arthritis are found elevated in Alzheimer’s as well.”

Credit _DJ_

Inflammation is our body’s response to injury. Essentially it is the body trying to heal itself. Perlmutter believes that the brain acts the same way, just instead of an outside source igniting the inflammation, the gut bacteria is responsible.

“Brain inflammation comes from imbalances of gut bacteria that lead to the breakdown of the lining of the gut so that chemicals, like Lipopolysaccharides (LPS), that should stay in the gut get into the systemic circulation and amplify inflammation,” Perlmutter explains.

In fact, Perlmutter’s latest book demonstrates the negative relationship between LPS and the systemic circulation.

“I have a graph that matches high levels of LPS with things like major depressive disorder, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s, autism, etc.,” continues Perlmutter.

LPS, a normal chemical inside the gut, is proven to have a negative effect on the brain. But how do those chemicals end up eating the gut lining and finding their way into the brain?

Perlmutter says there are a couple of things that can damage your microbiome, the population of microorganisms that live in our gut, mouth, skin, etc., and in turn affect the gut bacteria.

A significant ingredient to microbiome damage is the use of antibiotics or other drugs marketed to help our immune systems.

“Avoid unnecessary exposure to antibiotics, acid blocking drugs, and even the non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs because they are known to dramatically change the microbiome while setting the stage for immune issues and inflammatory issues that are far beyond the brain,” Perlmutter says.

But microbiome damage, and ultimately brain inflammation, can be limited.

Perlmutter explains that eliminating sugars, which specifically damage the microbiome, and increasing the intake of fermented foods, which are rich in probiotics, and foods rich in prebiotic fiber (onions, garlic and leeks) will help to nurture the good bacteria.

“The food that you’re eating is not just nurturing your body but it’s taking care of the hundred trillion bacteria that are sitting there waiting for their dinner,” says Perlmutter. “That’s how we should be thinking about our food; how do we nurture our gut bacteria?”

Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.