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Gut Health and Brain Function

By Nell Stephenson, B.S.
April 30, 2019
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About two years ago, my husband and I did DNA tests.

The raw data received was interesting, including finding out exactly what percentage of my ancestry actually is Norwegian (less than I thought) as well as the option to “trace parts of my ancestry to a specific group of individuals from 1,000+ years ago” and more.

It wasn’t until we had our raw data interpreted through Promethease (1), a literature retrieval system that builds a personal DNA report based on connecting a file of DNA genotypes to the scientific findings cited in SNPedia and took this report to a geneticist, mainly out of personal interest and intrigue, as well as part of our planning pre-baby, that it began to get even more interesting.

The Functional Medicine Physician who specializes in genetics met with each of us and gave us a run down not just of any increased risk of disease or health issues we may be slightly more likely to have but of personality traits!


And although I do have the gene to put me at higher risk of early onset Alzheimer's, I didn’t walk away feeling frightened.


Because while we can't do anything about our genetics, we have complete control of epigenetics.

Epigenetics Controls Genes.

Epigenetics is what determines a cell’s specialization (e.g., skin cells, blood cell, hair cell, liver cells, etc.) as a fetus develops into a baby through gene expression (active) or silencing (dormant).

Additionally, environmental stimuli can cause genes to be turned off or turned on.

What you eat, where you live, who you interact with, when you sleep, how you exercise, even aging – all of these can eventually cause chemical modifications around the genes that will turn those genes on or off over time. Additionally, in certain diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s, various genes will be switched into the opposite state, away from the normal/healthy state (2).

And guess what recommendations I was given to take complete control of all that I am able to in order to prevent developing that debilitating disease?

  • Get regular exercise.
  • Avoid toxins such as smoking, chemical exposure and improperly sourced and prepared food
  • Get ample and quality sleep.
  • Eat a nutrient dense diet which provides copious, local, in season veggies for vitamins, minerals and fiber, ample natural fats to support brain health and gut biome boosting foods regularly.

While the first three might sound like common sense,

If you’ve taken a pause to consider, you’re not alone.

As recently as 2011, a mere seven years ago, it was considered crazy to look at at connections between the microbiome, behavior and overall brain health, according to a recent article in the NY Times (3).

Among many other manifestations of sickness that impact brain function due to a disruption of a healthy gut microbiome, we see:

  • An alteration in appetite patterns, first seen in rodent studies
  • Unusual patterns of microbial species in stool samples of Autistic children
  • Differences in the gut bacteria of people with a host of other brain-based conditions
  • An association between gut microbiota and metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes mellitus (4)
  • A link between neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, autistic disorders, anxiety disorders and major depressive disorders

For many of us, myself previously included, some degree of gut dysbiosis is all too common.

Whether due to overuse of antibiotics, exposure to parasite or bacterial infections in the gut, excessive drinking, following a methodology of eating which is based on anything but real whole foods and causes inflammation or a combination of all of the above, the good news is that the human body is incredibly resilient.

In other words, we can heal ourselves, if our goal is to address root causes with a food first approach, rather than seeking transient remedies which target symptoms only, without removing the culprit.

Imagine trying to dress a gaping, oozing wound with small bandaids without trying to figure out why the bleeding won’t stop in the first place.

This is precisely the problem most of us experience visiting a doctor’s office for pain, for depression, even for GI distress. Tablets, pills and powders are typically distributed like candy on Halloween, yet what one is eating, which may cause or contribute to the problem, is often never even a conversation.

This was my own personal experience, as well as that of many clients with whom I’ve worked over the years.

If we begin to self educate and learn the vast impact gut health has on all functions of the body, we can first start by addressing what we’re choosing to put in our mouths, something we have complete control over and, if needed, then seek health care professionals who can provide guidance, testing and remedies when appropriate (sometimes Eastern, sometimes Western).

We may start with addressing our own gut health, or lack thereof, and for some, it’s a long path ahead, but what other choice is there?

If we think about what each of us may have endured in terms of sickness and shift our mindset to one which is proactive and information gathering, not only do we create a plan for building and boosting our own gut biomes, but we do so for our families and those around us.

The influence of a mother’s gut biome on her unborn baby begins before birth, as a pregnant mother’s microbiome releases molecules that make their way into the fetal brain and continues post partum as mothers seed their babies with microbes during childbirth and breast feeding. During the first few years of life, both the brain and the microbiome rapidly mature, according to Rebecca Knickmeyer, a neuroscientist at Michigan State University, who was interviewed for the piece in The Times.

We are in exciting times; obesity rates in the U.S. appear to be leveling off, according to a new report (from 2015 to 2016, adult obesity rates remained stable in 45 states) (5), people are becoming more mindful of the quality of food they’re buying (6) and there is a seemingly limitless amount of healthy food options coming on to the market place.

Anecdotally, I see more clients in my nutrition work who come in already aware of the impact of inflammation and gut dysfunction on their overall health and it is my feeling that people are beginning to get sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Are you sick and tired?

If so, how’s your gut health?

Not sure?

How’s your sleep quality?



Digestion / elimination?

Energy all day long?

Overall well being?

Just a few of the boxes to tick off to self evaluate your current situation.

Start with taking an honest inventory of what you’re eating, how you’re feeling as a result, and begin taking away the highly processed, low nutrient dense items that may have become a regular part of your regular regime.

Then, incorporate in a meaningful way, a large focus on in-season, leafy organic veggies, small amounts of mindfully sourced proteins, a range of ample, natural fats and gut biome boosting foods:

  • Bone broth
  • Fermented foods (so long as you’re not following a candida or SIBO protocol
  • Prebiotic foods (asparagus, dandelion greens, garlic, jerusalem artichoke, onions)
  • Probiotics (you may want to check in with your naturopath to determine which probiotics are best for you, specifically)

Takeaway message here:

All of it.

Healthy guts, here we come!



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