Gut Health: ​The Real Reason You May Be Hooked on Junk Food by Dr. Shawn Talbott

Nutrition Family Health
4 years ago

Gut Health: ​The Real Reason You May Be Hooked on Junk Food

You may have every intention to eat better. But when your stomach starts to growl, all bets are off. You give into your cravings for chips and soda – again! Why is this happening? The 100 trillion bacteria living in your gut are telling your brain what they want to eat. And they want junk food.

What your gut tells your brain – and vice versa – is part of what scientists call the gut/brain axis. I’m fascinated by nutritional biochemistry: the idea that what we eat changes the biochemistry of our bodies, and influences how we look, think and feel. And we’re learning that this connection influences everything from our moods and how we eat to our overall well-being.

Did you know you have two brains in your body? There are more good bacteria (probiotics) in our gut than there are stars in the Milky Way. If you were to weigh them, they’d weigh just about as much as the brain in your head. Scientists refer to your gut as your second brain because it determines a big piece of your mental wellness. Your gut creates most of the serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters responsible for your mood.

What we are now discovering is that some of the problems we associate with the brain may be the result of faulty signals between our brain and our gut (our second brain). We’re learning that the underlying problem may start when your gut is out of balance. If it’s not sending the right signals to the brain, it may lead to feelings of stressfatigue and anxiety.

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. At the same time, these faulty signals can affect your gut motility: your ability to control when you want to go, and when you don’t want to go. This may explain why some people get diarrhea when they’re nervous.

The gut/brain axis is also connected with the immune system. Seventy percent of our immune system resides in our gut, and that’s one of the key communication networks between the first and second brain. We now understand that there are things we can do for our immune system to improve our mood.

I like to describe mental wellness as a continuum. On the left side is the red zone, characterized by depression and anxiety. When people are in the middle, they may feel some brain fog, a little fatigued, a little blue. The green zone to the far right is characterized by high energy, optimism and vigor. Optimizing your gut function may nudge you a little to the right. And if you’re already doing awesome, it will help you to continue doing awesome.

This may be why you crave corn chips instead of salads. 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. Soon the good bacteria in your gut will ask your brain to supply more of that healthier food.

We’re learning how to nourish and protect the good bacteria in our guts. There are several things we can do to balance our gut/brain axis so that we feel better physically and emotionally. My three best tips are:

  • 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, available over the counter 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.
  • Add fermented foods to your diet. Kimchee, yogurt, kefir and kombucha all help to maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
  • Feed your gut and brain plant-based amino acids. Amino acids are used by the body for many physiological functions. One amino acid found in matcha – called theanine – has been shown to promote relaxation without causing drowsiness, reduce nervous tension and help prevent the negative side-effects of caffeine. It’s a great brain nutrient. L-theanine is available over the counter as Suntheanine.

Trust your gut. Much of what science is confirming about the gut/brain axis has been known since the beginning of time. We talk about having butterflies in our stomach when we’re nervous, and about having gut feelings. These phrases are part of our language because they describe real, physical phenomena.

But what we didn’t understand until recently is that our feelings don’t always start in our heads. Communication signals go from gut to brain as well as brain to gut. I’m all about helping you to learn how to maintain better balance between the two, so that you can become an even better you.   

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Donna John
How interesting! You would never think there was a connection between gut health and your brain ... and that bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos. :-) Great information here, Dr. Shawn Talbott . Welcome to 30Seconds! Can't wait to learn even more from you.
Such great info! Thank you for all of the details!
Elisa Schmitz, 30Seconds
This is fascinating! I was aware of the importance of gut health, but this really put it all into perspective. Many thanks for the great info, Dr. Shawn Talbott . So glad to have you as part of our community of writers. Looking forward to your next tip!

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