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< Back to Brain Health

The Mind-Gut Connection

There are several factors that influence the developing brain, including the health of the gut microbiome. Read on to learn about the relationship between the mind and the gut, and which optimal nutrients can support brain health. 

A Smart Start for the Developing Brain
Historically, we thought the brain was largely finished developing by puberty, but we now know the brain continues to develop well past adolescence and into early adulthood.

There are several factors that influence the developing brain, including the health of the gut microbiome.

The gut-brain-axis is a two-way communication system between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract. Our gut is home to a community that harbours over 100 trillion microorganisms, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – collectively called the microbiome. In recent years, countless studies have provided evidence that alterations in the gut microbiota have been linked to a broad range of diseases and mental health disorders in children and adults. These conditions include: anxiety, depression, mood disorders, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, and cardiovascular disease.

Influences on Gut and Brain Health
Overweight and obesity is increasing globally in people of all ages and one in seven children in Canada is obese. Obesity and its complications such as type 2 diabetes have also been linked to changes in the composition and diversity of the gut microbiota.

Toxins in our foods and environment, diet, sleep patterns, stress, and antibiotic use all result in alterations to the intestinal microbiota. Adolescents are exposed to a vast array of these stressors, and it is a period of profound brain changes particularly in the frontal lobes which are involved in problem solving, memory, language, judgement, impulse control, and social behavior. The role of gut bacteria in anxiety, depression, eating disorders, psychosis and substance abuse that commonly emerge during the teenage years is becoming a major area of research.

Building Blocks for the Brain
These important periods for brain growth can be profoundly influenced by a healthy diet and lifestyle. Studies prove time and time again the importance of physical activity for brain health in children and teens, especially in terms of thinking skills that most affect academic performance.

Supplements including omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics to support the gut microbiome, and a multivitamin are important building blocks for the brain. If children or teens turn their noses up at leafy greens, consider using a concentrated green supplement and add it to a smoothie with berries, other vegetables or fruits, yogurt and add probiotics and omega-3s. Smoothies taste good, provide a nutritious start to the day and are easy to make while trying to get kids out the door for school.

By Karen Jensen
1. McVey Neufeld KA, Luczynski P, DinanTG, et al. Reframing the Teenage Wasteland: Adolescent Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Can J Psychiatry. 2016 Apr; 61(4): 214–221.
2. Rogers GB, Keating DJ, Young RL, et al.  From gut dysbiosis to altered brain function and mental illness: mechanisms and pathways. Mol Psychiatry. 2016 Jun; 21(6): 738–748.
3. Dinan TG, Cryan JF. Gut instincts: microbiota as a key regulator of brain development, ageing and neurodegeneration. J Physiol 595.2 (2017) pp 489–503 489.
4. Borre YE, O’Keeffe GW, Clarke G, et al.  Microbiota and neurodevelopmental windows: implications for brain disorders. Trends Mol Med. 2014 Sep;20(9):509-18.
5. Heijtz RD, Wang S, Anuar F, et al. Normal gut microbiota modulates brain development and behavior. PNAS February 15, 2011. 108 (7) 3047-3052
6. Lam YY, Maguire S, Palacios T, et al.  Are the Gut Bacteria Telling Us to Eat or Not to Eat? Reviewing the Role of Gut Microbiota in the Etiology, Disease Progression and Treatment of Eating Disorders. Nutrients 2017, 9(6), 602.

About the Author: Karen Jensen

Karen Jensen

Karen Jensen, (retired ND) was in clinical practice for 25 years and although she is retired she continues to write books and educate on the naturopathic approach to wellness. She is author or co-author of seven books, her most recent is Women’s Health Matters: The Influence of Gender on Disease.