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Diet affects brain and microbiome

woman eating hamburger
August 31, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Until just a few decades ago, we ate and drank only natural things.

That’s all there was.

Then came preservatives, refined sugar, modified this and trans-that, hydrogenation, and all of the innovations provided by food scientists. Countless millennia of a finely tuned relationship between natural food and our digestive systems—down the toilet. Literally.

A new study has shown that overdoing high-fat, high-sugar foods can lead to overdoing more of those foods—and all foods.

Toot toot! All aboard the trouble train! Bring your own deep-fried, chemical-laden, sugar-soaked, over-processed, so-called “foods!” Next stop: obesity!

The Biome-Brain Breakdown

Obesity is now called “a worldwide health problem of epidemic proportions” by anyone paying attention.

The new study, using lab rats, gives us major insights into how it works.

It starts with consumption of high-fat foods. These throw the mix of good bacteria in our gut—collectively known as our biome—off-balance. Each type of bacteria, it’s been found, has a neuro-communication job to do, sending signals to the brain—like “I’m hungry.”

When the biome changes, the neuro-communications between biome and brain get scrambled, and the part of the brain that governs how we eat and drink—in the hypothalmic region—gets inflamed.

So the “I’m full” message that a healthy, well-fed biome sends never gets through to the brain. The result is a craving, gnawing hunger—and overeating in search of satiety. You never feel full, you always feel hungry.

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This and related behaviors are so common, they’ve earned themselves their own technical name: “obesogenic” eating habits.

How obesogenic eating habits affect the biome

Associate professor of neuroanatomy at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, Krzysztof Czaja, DVM, PhD, a principal investigator on the study, says our biome reacts to unhealthy foods in the same way a human community reacts, say, to a sudden major drop in temperature. Some people will bundle up a bit and shrug it off, others will become less productive because they never feel comfortably warm, some will go outside less, and still others might even become ill … and die.

“In the regular physiological state, many different strains of bacteria live in a balanced environment in the intestinal tract,” said Dr. Czaja. “They don’t overpopulate. There are little shifts, but in general this population is quite stable.

When we start feeding the rats a different diet, there is an immediate effect. Suddenly, different nutrients are changing the microenvironment in the gut and some bacteria begin to overpopulate. Some sensitive bacteria begin to die and some populations may even vanish. So, introducing a significant change in the gut microenvironment triggers a cascade of events that leads to this population switch.”

Dr. Czaja and I’m sure many others are trying to determine whether the damage caused by obesogenic eating habits can be reversed. I’m confident there will be an answer.

The importance of changing our habits

That would be a momentous finding, of course, as the obesity epidemic now counts more than one-third of U.S. adults as obese—and at higher risk for some of the leading causes of preventable death—heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

There’s no doubt, of course, that changing our national eating and drinking habits would be at least a step in the right direction. This study’s finding that obese or obesogenic people might never “feel full,” no matter what and how much they eat, might help them use reason to override their dysfunctional brain-biome communications.

Dr. Czaja sums it up perfectly.

He says we should “think systemically.” “All of the components and receptors in our body are interconnected and should work in harmony.”

Let’s hope that’s a message that gets through to everyone.

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