President Obama, Paul Allen, and the Dalai Lama are in cahoots to understand the human condition. In April, the President announced his proposed $100 million BRAIN initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), comparing the effort to the Human Genome Project “to have a lasting positive impact on lives, the economy, and our national security.” As part of the effort, The Allen Institute for Brain Science is listed as a partner to “understand how brain activity leads to perception, decision making, and ultimately action.” Separately, the Mind & Life Institute, a non-profit co-founded by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, has three core research initiatives one of which is Mapping the Mind. According to their website, “Mapping the Mind offers us a major long-term opportunity that can contribute towards the common goal of human knowledge and happiness…” But what if it isn’t all in our heads?
These efforts are grounded in the assumption that happiness, suffering, and understanding reside between our two ears. But what about the precursors to all of those neurons and neurotransmitters? What if satisfaction, sanity, and wisdom start in our stomachs? Before launching into brain scans, maybe we should take a gut check. Michael Gershon called the dynamically complex and autonomous enteric nervous system our “second brain.” Given species evolved digestive systems before any sight of spinal cords and cerebral cortexes emerged, maybe the better characterization is our “first brain.” It is this brain that first encounters the fuel we consume.
The foods (or what is posing as such) that we eat are meant to provide the essential building blocks for our bodies. The substances we ingest are broken down by our gastrointestinal (GI) system and then fabricated into the specialized molecules like seratonin that regulate much of our well-being. Unfortunately, modern diets aren’t congruent with our ancestral makeup. We’re a species of hunter-gatherers consuming cultivated grains, dairy, and synthetic chemicals. We’re both deficient in required nutrients and sabotaged by substances our GI brains flag as toxic. Seemingly “healthy” foods can trigger an inflammatory response with cascading effects throughout our bodies.
When our GI functions are afoul, the consequences are more than just gaseous. Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride coined the phrase “Gut and Psychology Syndrome” when she began to see a link between the physical and mental health in her patients as well as with her autistic son. She found gastrointestinal distress among those presenting with a range of maladies including autism, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, bipolar, depression, and schizophrenia. When placed on a restorative diet, patients saw improvement in a variety of symptoms. Her son reportedly no longer falls in the autism spectrum. Similar findings are summarized by Dr. William Davis in his recent book Wheat Belly. Just changing what we eat, as opposed to popping a pill, can change our brain functions.
The link between what we eat and how we are isn’t new news. To quote Hippocrates: Morbi omnes incipiant in ventrem. Translated, “All diseases begin in the gut!”
So to the esteemed modern men on a quest to map our minds, I pose the question, what about our bellies?