Food For Thought: The Gut-Brain Connection

“Disease begins in the gut” is an old naturopathic adage that is now being scientifically proven. And food is the most powerful medicine we give ourselves each day.

So naturally, my favorite organ system is the one that processes it all: the digestive tract. It is nothing short of amazing how much this 20-foot long tube does: it’s our “grand central station” where “information” is arriving (in the form of food) and is then digested, assimilated and distributed to every cell of our body, with connections to the circulatory, nervous, immune and endocrine systems.

Our gut is a powerful biochemical reactor, capable of almost magically transforming the plants and animals of nature into the building blocks of our body: the carbohydrates, proteins and fats, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to run all the metabolic reactions that promote health and prevent disease.

We’re in the midst of a revolution in our understanding of the role of food and the gut in health and dis-ease. In coming posts, we’ll explore the gut-brain connection, leaky gut and food reactions, the microbiome, endotoxemia, irritable bowel and an array of chronic health problems. You’ll learn how food influences your digestive, nervous and immune systems and ultimately your health.


Over the past few decades, I’ve shifted my perspective from seeing food as fuel to understanding that food is “information”. Each bite of food we eat is filled with thousands of biochemical messages that “speak” to our genes, instructing them to function optimally or improperly, generating compounds that either promote health or dis-ease.

If we’re eating berries and broccoli, oranges and tomatoes, we’re consuming an array of phytonutrients, the chemical messengers concentrated in the pigments of plants. These colorful pigments act as a set of “chemical keys” to inform your genes and cells to function optimally.

Conversely, if we’re eating the SAD (Standard American Diet), then we’re consuming adulterated foods, laden with sugar, trans fats and environmental toxins that promote metabolic dysfunction and contribute to the rise in chronic diseases of today.


It helps to think of your digestive tract as a “living tube” lined with your “inner skin”. This delicate mucous membrane is just one cell layer thick. Because the highly processed “food” we eat today is passing over this thin mucosal lining, it can trigger a shift in the barrier function of the gut. This is called “intestinal hyper-permeability” or “leaky gut” and we’ll be exploring its crucial role in indigestion, autoimmunity, dementia and more.

It turns out that many of the things that cause a leaky gut barrier also cause a leaky “blood brain barrier”, resulting in brain fog and cognitive issues. Treat these sensitive barriers with kindness and they work as designed: as a barrier, allowing across the nutrients we need and excluding the rest.


The gut is home to our “Second Brain”, first described in 1998 by Columbia professor, Michael Gershon, MD, in his book by the same name. This second brain is also known as our “Enteric Nervous System” because the digestive tract originates from the same tissue that our central nervous system does.

This network of a hundred million neurons lies on the other side of the mucosal lining of our digestive tract and is connected to the brain through the 10th cranial or the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our body, running from our brainstem down through the chest with connections to the heart, lungs, esophagus, stomach and intestines. It has bidirectional communication: from the brain to the gut and the gut to the brain.

The vagus nerve controls our metabolism through the autonomic nervous system, which has two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. As you know, the sympathetic nervous system is activated by stress, sending adrenaline through our body to create the “fight or flight” response. While the parasympathetic nervous system should be dominant when we’re at rest, sending calming neurotransmitters like serotonin to supply the needed flow of blood and enzymes to our intestines to help digest and absorb our food.

Note to self: watching a thriller over dinner does not foster good digestion or inner peace!

What does foster good digestion is a balanced bowl of nutrient-rich ingredients that heals the gut and calms the nervous system.

One of my favorite (one-pot) meals that does just that is Thai Coconut Ginger Chicken Soup. This classic soup has two kinds of ginger, which have a regulatory effect on the vagus nerve and modulate serotonin signaling, thus supporting the gut-brain connection. And it is surprisingly easy to make! A quick trip through your local Asian market to pick up a few dollars of galangal ginger, kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil and you’ll have this soup on the table in about an hour! Enjoy, knowing its healing ingredients nurture your “second brain”.

(Don’t worry: if you don’t have an Asian market in your area, the recipe makes adjustments).

My mission is to feed you healthy recipes and tasty bites of power-packed information. Let me know if you enjoy this recipe and post by liking or commenting below. A santé! (To health)!


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