Could the Bacteria in Your Gut Help To Balance Your Brain? Pt. 2 with Zoe Davis

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

It may make some squeamish, but there are 100 trillion bugs in your intestinal lining. 100 trillion! Believe it or not, these bacteria may actually be your brain’s best friends. In part 2 of a series with nutritional coach Zoe Davis, Dr. Daniel Amen and Zoe describe the important ways your gut interacts with your brain, how the Vegus nerve just may be to blame for your anxiety and depression.


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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Doctor Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. Here we teach you how to win the fight for your brain to defeat anxiety, depression, memory loss, ADHD, and addictions.

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Dr. Daniel Amen: All right, welcome back. We are here with Zoe Davis, therapist, nutritionist. She's really the coach at Amen Clinics. When I have a patient that I want to help them with their diet, I send them to Zoe. Zoe is also the coach on BrainFitLife, our online and mobile program. You can learn about it at

So Zoe, in your training as someone who's interested in mental health and nutrition, when did the gut become an obvious place for us to start working on?

Zoe Davis: Yeah, that's a good question. For me personally, I think it's been a long time coming. I've talked about how I grew up in a very strict ballet school and I saw in my sort of later years how people's lack of eating enough nutrients, because that was strongly encouraged in the ballet world, was contributing to depression, anxiety. And I didn't really think of it as a gut thing necessarily, but I started thinking okay, there's something to this nutrition and mental health connection.

So certainly later I started to realize that there have been a lot of studies done, actually back into the early 1900s, where people were looking at nutrients and their benefit to mental health issues, but it sort of like thrown out and not strongly encouraged. So learning about the gut as a second brain has been, probably in the last five to ten years, as it's really been understood and makes common sense, that what we take in and whether it's absorbed or utilized well or whether we're not taking in enough, really contributes to how our brain is functioning just like it contributes to how the rest of our body's functioning, right?

So this is a powerful thing. I mean, we are made up of more bacteria than we are other human cells, right? So we've got trillions and trillions of bacteria in our gut and how they're impacting the way that we function, whether we're absorbing well, whether we're getting sick, whether we're staying well, whether our immune system's functioning, whether neurotransmitters are being utilized well and absorbed, it has everything to do with it. So it's just the second brain that we've got housed in our GI tract, and it's powerful when we start to look at that in terms of how it changes the way that our brain functions. And it's a wonderful conversation to keep having because not a lot of people know about it.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So not one lecture in medical school about the gut-brain connection for me. Not one lecture in my residency; my psychiatric residency or my child and adolescence psychiatry fellowship. Not one. And it's nuts when you think, as you said, you have a hundred trillion bugs in your intestinal tract where you only have ten trillion cells in your whole body. So you have ten times the number of bugs, and they can be really good for you, so they can be really helpful, or they can be really hurtful. And if you don't feed the bugs right, they won't make neurotransmitters, they won't make vitamins, they won't digest your food. They will cause this thing we call leaky gut, where your gut lining becomes deteriorated and you start to absorb things you shouldn't absorb in your body.

Zoe Davis: Yeah, you start to become almost allergic to yourself, right? I mean, I think that's the thing I remember a professor once said, is try not to become allergic to yourself. It's like that idea of you start to react to things that maybe you could normally eat, but if your intestinal lining is permeable, you're gonna have problems.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, and I love that term, I'd never heard that before; become allergic to yourself. So that's what MS is, multiple sclerosis, it's what rheumatoid arthritis is, it's what lupus is. And a lot of rheumatologists or neurologists will try to drug the brain into submission without really going at what the root cause might be, and that is often gut health.

So as I talk about brain health, I always say brain health is three things: You gotta care about your brain, so fall in love with your brain, avoid anything that hurts it, and do things that help it. You just need to know the lists. Well gut health is sort of the same thing, is you need to care about that tube that's 30 feet long; and you need to care about its health, its contents, and what are the things you can do for it that help it, and what are the things you should stop doing that hurt it.

So we already began to talk about why you should love it. And people know intuitively. I remember I went ... I used to get butterflies before I would speak in front of an audience, and why, right? I mean, I'm anxious in my mind; how does that affect my gut? Well, there's a big nerve called the vagus nerve that goes between your brain and your gut, and so it's sending signals you're unhappy, your gut will feel it. I remember when I went through a period of grief 13 years ago now. I lost somebody that I just dearly loved. My GI tract was upset for six months. It just wasn't working right and I think so many people who go through grief, they experience gastric symptoms.

Zoe Davis: Absolutely, yeah. And I think it's a great messenger. I mean, it's a communication tool like you were just talking about, the vagus nerve, but we are more in touch with and we can feel what's going on in our gut where we can't feel what's going on in our brain, right? And so it's a great ... If we're willing to listen to it, it's got a lot of information for us.

So you know, people come in and they've got all kinds of issues; constipation or IBS or, you know, just difficulty absorbing food, or upset stomach a lot. And yeah, as you pointed out, you get into what's going on psychologically, emotionally, and there's almost always a connection. And certainly we see the benefit of addressing those two things in concert. And again, that speaks to sort of the nourishment overall. It's like well okay, yeah, someone's going through grief or someone's got a lot of anxiety; it's going to impact the way that they're able to even take in food, and certainly the way that they're able to absorb it. And so looking at those two things together is always, I think, more beneficial.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And so few psychiatrists or therapists have any clue or any training on this, but if you're struggling from anxiety, depression, ADD, and addiction, it's so important to work on gut health. And so let's teach people how to do that; how do you take care of your gut? So what are the things to do and what are the things to not do?

Zoe Davis: Right. So one of the key things to do is make sure that we're feeding the beneficial bacteria. So one of the ways that we can do that through our food is through eating a fiber-rich diet, right? We've gotta get the prebiotics in, the food for the beneficial bacteria, we've gotta be eating high fiber. So, you know, the US population in general is like getting half of what we need in terms of fiber; we really need 20, 30 grams a day and we're like 10, 15. So we've gotta feed the bacteria and keep the beneficial bacteria there to hold space so that we don't end up with the pathogenic bacteria taking over.

So that's number one: We've gotta make sure we're not taking in pesticides and even artificial sweeteners like sucralose that can act almost like an antibiotic and kill off some of our beneficial bacteria. We've gotta be abstaining from taking too many antibiotics. I mean, that's something in the medical field that are just often dolled out without a lot of thought as to the repercussions, and I'm constantly fascinated by how many people are on antibiotics. I had a patient recently who had been on antibiotics for 15 years, just every day, and had never been told to take a probiotic, and had not been told to incorporate probiotic-rich foods, and not been told to incorporate fiber-rich foods.

So those sort of basic things really make an impact on what's able to thrive in our guts and what's able to keep from thriving.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So prebiotics, which fiber-rich food, probiotics, which yes, you can take supplements and BrainMD makes ProBrainBiotics. And we made that one specifically because there are a couple of studies showing that it helps support your mood and decrease anxiety. Probiotic foods. It's a little bit of a double-edged sword because people think they're eating yogurt, and so they get Dannon yogurt off the grocery store shelf, and it's loaded with artificial dyes and sugar. And it's like no. I mean, we're sort of not a fan of dairy anyways and if you're sensitive ... But kimchi is loaded with healthy probiotics. I don't like kimchi, it's just not for me, but I love sauerkraut and sauerkraut is loaded with probiotics.

So feeding your gut healthy bacteria is so important for ... And then if you've had things that destroyed your gut like antibiotics, like chronic stress ... So chronic stress as a young person. So I just saw someone yesterday who was molested physically, emotionally, sexually. It changed her gut health, and I just know that. It decreases her gut's ability to produce serotonin, it makes it more likely she's gonna have leaky gut, and so on. So taking care of the emotional trauma with treatments like EMDR, a specific psychotherapy for trauma, can be really helpful, but then you have to avoid things that hurt your gut and do things that help your gut.

And you mentioned probiotics. The other thing ... I'm sorry, you mentioned pesticides. Of course, what do pesticides do? They kill bugs. And so that's why eating organic is really important when you can. But the other thing people don't talk much about is alcohol, and my wife is a nurse, and why do nurses put alcohol on your skin before they give you a shot?

Zoe Davis: To kill bacteria, right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: To kill the bugs. But yet we sort of have this idea that alcohol's a health food and that you should have two or three glasses of red wine a day and somehow that's good for you. It like sets like forest fires in the gut bacteria, so I'm not a fan of it. And a lot of people are almost shamed, like if you don't drink you're not really a grown-up, and I'm like ... I'm just not a fan. I mean, if you have one or two glasses a week, it's probably not a problem; if you have one or two glasses a day, according to a study from John Hopkins, you have a smaller brain. And I would just say, when it comes to the brain, size really does matter. It's the only organ in your body where size matters, but your brain counts. You don't want to be shrinking your brain.

Zoe Davis: And I think, you know, you bring up a good point about sort of the habit of it, right? So that people are used to having alcohol with every social occasional. You know, just like they're used to having really junk food; I mean, there's that sort of habit of that in so many of our lives, and I think questioning that and talking about how can you enjoy socializing without that or what else can you do that's health promoting where you're still able to enjoy each other's company. I think that's ... It's inclusive, right? It's like you're addressing the fact that there is a social component to it but you're also addressing the fact that you don't want to be hurting yourself in order to have that.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So in the going away party in the clinic that you told me about at the break, I'm hoping they don't have candy and cake and sodas and alcohol.

Zoe Davis: No, it was all beautiful. It was all beautiful, whole foods. It was great, yeah. Fresh fruit for dessert.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Why do we celebrate with foods that hurt us?

Zoe Davis: Yeah, yeah. I think it's just because that's what we have been doing, and that is ... We haven't thought of it as hurting us, right? We've thought of it as oh, that's just the recipe I've always made or that's what my mom's always done or that's what my grandmother did or whatever. I don't think we stop to question it, and we don't stop to question what's the real meaning of the celebration and why would that we taken away if we just transferred the types of foods we're eating or what we're drinking with it? It really doesn't change the content of the connection, but I think people think that it does somehow.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I mean, Thanksgiving or birthdays at my house ... I mean, they're celebrations but with things that serve us rather than things that hurt us.

All right, when we come back, we are gonna talk about what to do, what you can eat every day. Stay with us.

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