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How Many Brains Do You Have?

My book, Do Happy, breaks down my system for happiness. I have been writing the section on food and how it affects our mental health. Below is a cheeky excerpt.

How many brains do you have?  What if the answer is two?

The first brain is the brain. It’s the one that sits between your ears. The engine that drives everything. It keeps us alive and is the puppeteer behind everything that we feel, think and do. It’s responsible for curly fries, self driving cars, artificial intelligence and mean YouTube comments.  This is our central nervous system.

The second brain, is not as well known. It’s the gut. The long and windy journey from our mouths to our rectum, the place where poo comes out, is lined by millions of nerve cells. This is our enteric nervous system.

Colloquially, we appreciate the gut as our second brain. When making a big decision, do you listen to your brain or ‘go with your gut’? When you are nervous, you may have a racing mind but what about those ‘butterflies in your stomach’?

The enteric nervous system and the central nervous system form the gut-brain axis.

Conceptualising the brain as being the main controller and the gut as responsible for digestion is outdated. To first understand the brain and the gut, it is useful to separate the two organs. It is like learning how to play two musical instruments. You have to learn how to play each of them in isolation first.  However, the beauty is in the integration of these two instruments. The symphony. We know that the brain influences activities in the gut and the gut influences our cognition and mental health. One of the great symphonies that occur in our bodies.

The Food and Mood centre at Deakin University is world-leading research centre that aims to understand the ‘complex way in which what we eat influences our brain, mood and mental health’.  They do cutting edge work and they are in our own backyard!

What have they found? What we eat impacts our brain and mental health.

There is evidence that eating a nutrient dense diet reduces your risk of major depressive disorder. Inversely, diets high in ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of depressive symptoms.

Here lies an incredible opportunity. How often do you point to your diet when you are struggling with your mental health?

It’s a lot like putting the right fuel in your car.

A while back, my friend calls me in a panic.
“Why, what’s up?”
“I put the wrong petrol in my car.”
“Just drive it and see what happens?” (This is why I take care of people and not cars.)
“Well, it can damage the engine.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I’m waiting for this guy to come and pump the petrol out of the car.”
“There’s someone in the world who does that? That’s wild!”

Admittedly, I take much better care of my body than I do my car. You can always replace a car.

So what’s the right fuel for your gut? No one can agree on anything! We all agree it’s important.

In times of complexity, I like to resort to profound simplicity. 7 words.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” – Michael Pollen.

Eat food.
Eat ‘real’ food. Avoid ‘food’ that comes in a container or wrapper that your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise. 

Not too much.
‘Hara hachi bun me’ is Confucian teaching that encourages people to stop eating when they are 80% full.

Mostly plants.
Eat stuff that can be grown.

If in doubt, here are some wise words from this kid I met recently – “Poo poo is a sometimes food”.

If you enjoyed this article, SHARE this with at least one person who can benefit from it.

Much love to you and of course myself,

Dr G

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