Feeding Your TWO Brains for Mental Health Month

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.


Did you know you have two brains in your body?

That’s right – TWO brains – the one that you know about in your head, and your “second brain” in your gut

Our “first” brain is responsible for analytical thought, language, reason, logic, and most of our “higher” mental function as humans – so it’s the one that is helping you read this article and make sense of the world around you.

Our “second” brain is responsible for those vague “gut feelings” that we often experience, but that we can’t put words to – things like whether or not you trust someone or if a decision feels like the right one (or not). One of the reasons that we have trouble describing our gut feelings in words is because the signals from our second brain communicate with a region of the first brain called the insula (or insular cortex) – a “pre-verbal” area of the brain involved in consciousness, compassion, empathy, self-awareness, and interpersonal experiences.

Bacterial Abundance – the Microbiome

The most important part of our second brain is the “microbiome” – the trillions of good bacteria (probiotics) that live in our gut and contribute to our moods, energy levels, food cravings, and virtually every aspect of our mental wellness and physical health. The bacterial cells in our microbiome number more than the stars in the Milky Way and outnumber our own body cells by nearly 10-to-1. As much as 90% of our serotonin and 70% of our dopamine comes from our second brain – and these neurotransmitters along with other gut–derived signals play a huge role in how our gut is connected to our brain– and vice versa.

We are now discovering is that some of the problems we associate with the brain, such as stress, fatigue, depression, and anxiety may actually be the result of faulty signals between our brain and our gut (our second brain). If our gut is not sending the right signals to the brain, it may lead to feelings of stress, fatigue and anxiety – but there are a number of effective lifestyle interventions that can help us to optimize our gut-brain connection to help us feel our best.

Something to consider:

? 70% of our immune system resides in our gut, and that’s one of the key communication networks between the first and second brain.

? Your gut creates most of the serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters responsible for your mood.

? When it comes to food cravings– Think of your gut as a garden. If you feed the bacteria in your gut corn chips, you are preferentially growing the ones that thrive on corn chips. When they get hungry, they send a signal to your brain to send more corn chips. That’s why you get the cravings. If you started eating more fruits and vegetables instead, the “corn chip” bacteria will starve. Your cravings will change.

? What’s an out of balance gut look like? You may have digestive issues such as bloating, cramping or occasional diarrhea or occasional constipation, causing the wrong signals to be sent to your brain.

There are several natural lifestyle approaches that we can take to balance our gut/brain axis so that we feel better physically and emotionally. For example – I like to tell people that gut-brain balance is directly connected to how we Move, Rest, and Eat.

In terms of “movement” – we know that even small amounts of physical activity are more effective in improving mood and reducing depression than prescription antidepressants. Similarly, we know that enough “rest” in terms of adequate sleep quality, is one of the leading contributors to overall brain health – including mood, energy levels, food cravings (such as stress eating) and belly fat. Perhaps the most direct connection between our two brains is through what we eat – so here are my “top 5” tips for gut-brain balance:

1. Eat more “whole” and fewer “processed” foods. The less processed, the better in terms of feeding your microbiome. Think about an apple, versus applesauce, versus apple juice – and eat the most “whole” version possible.

2. Bring on the fiber! There are two types of fiber: insoluble and soluble. Insoluble is like nature’s broom. We don’t digest it, and it carries toxins with it as it exits our bodies. Soluble fiber absorbs water and helps to normalize digestion. It can also act as a prebiotic, which means it feeds the good bacteria in our gut. I like soluble guar fiber, such as Sunfiber, because it has been shown in more than 120 clinical studies to support digestive health without the uncomfortable side effects. It also triggers the release of satiation-inducing hormones, so you may not feel as hungry.

3. Add fermented foods to your diet. Kimchee, yogurt, kefir and kombucha all help to maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria.

4. Feed your gut specific phytonutrients such as flavonoids/polyphenols from brightly-colored berries, peppers, and citrus. These phytonutrients can help to protect good bacteria and displace bad bacteria – helping to establish a suitable microbiome environment for the production of more “feel good” neurotransmitters.

5. Feed your brain specific plant-based amino acids. Amino acids are used by the body for many physiological functions. One amino acid found in matcha (whole leaf green tea powder) – called theanine – has been shown to promote relaxation without causing drowsiness, reduce nervous tension, and help prevent the negative side-effects of caffeine. If you’re not a tea drinker, you can also use a supplemental form of pure theanine (Suntheanine brand) to help promote “relaxed alertness” in body and mind.

Our recent discovery of the “second brain” and our ability to naturally modulate the Gut-Brain-Axis with lifestyle choices (move, rest, eat) is completely changing the way that we think about (and improve) our mental wellness and physical health. Just a few very simple changes to your diet can dramatically improve your mood, energy levels, mental focus, and even physical performance.

About the Author:

Dr. Shawn Talbott received dual Bachelor’s degrees in Sports Medicine (B.S.) and Fitness Management (B.A.) from Marietta College, his Master’s degree (M.S.) in Exercise Science from UMASS, and his Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from Rutgers. His research is focused on natural products to support human performance and psychological vigor (physical energy, mental acuity, and emotional well-being).

Dr. Talbott’s recent projects include two academic textbooks, an award-winning documentary film, and several best-selling books translated into multiple languages. His work has been featured on The Dr. Oz Show, the TED stage, and the White House.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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