When Rene Descartes proposed the Mind-Body problem, stating that “The nature of the mind is completely different from the nature of the body and therefore it is possible for one to exist without the other,” he would not have considered the trillions of microbiota that exist in the Human Gut.
Dr Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) – professor of medicine, and the author of the book ‘Mind-Gut Connection’ introduces the topic with this philosophical problem that has enamoured man for centuries. But the way he handles the same is scientifically.
The first chapter speaks directly to the reader stating that the Mind-Body Connection is real. He states categorically; “In this book I will offer a revolutionary new look at how the brain, the gut and the trillions of micro biota living in the gut communicate with each other.”
Just like the Copernican revolution changed the understanding of the world’s position in our solar system, the discovery of the relevance of microbial components are questioning whether man is simply an organism or a super organism with human and microbial components.
A discreet and hidden conversation between the brain, gut and gut-microbes, through a shared biological language, is responsible for a variety of human behaviours and emotions. These conversations, according to Dr Emeran, have a definitive impact on our health and wellbeing in general. Dr Emeran describes how the mind communicates with the gut, how the gut talks to the brain and also how the ‘microbe-speak’, which is the conversation the microbes are mediating between both the stakeholders, occurs. The Mind/Brain (Which the author uses interchangeably) reflects on thoughts, memories of past events and expectations of the future, and thence influences the brain-gut axis. He claims that negative emotions are like a dramatic piece that plays in the theatre of the gut, usually belonging to the genre of‘horror story’ or ‘thriller’.
Negative emotions have a huge repercussion on the gut and its performance, but whether positive emotions do affect the gut in a similar manner is a matter of further investigation. The gut contrastingly has an elaborate sensory system that behaves like the national security agency of the body; it gathers information from all areas of the digestive system and sends it to the brain, but triggers an alarm only when things go wrong. In this entire interaction between the brain/mind and the gut, the microbiota also gets involved with its own contribution through ‘Microbe-speak’, which is like the internal internet of the body.
Through specific case studies, like the one of Jennifer, who suffered from stress related bowel problems or that of Bill who suffered from cyclical vomiting syndrome, Dr Emeran brings out the complexity of the gut Microbiota and their relevance. He also emphasizes the importance of how stress during pregnancy can have a long lasting effect on a child’s life. He quotes: “I feel strongly that any interference with normal programming of the infant’s gut micro biome through avoidable stress, non-vaginal delivery, unnecessary use of antibiotics, and unhealthy dietary habits during the pre and postnatal periods can lay the groundwork for brain-gut disorders.”
Be it Emotions or intuition, Dr Emeran Mayer builds the narrative where the protagonists are the Gut and its Microbes. He explains how the present influence of the North American diet with the presence of artificial sweeteners, Food Emulsifiers, and Vital Gluten may contribute to chronic diseases of the brain.
A positive alternative to the North American diet can be the‘Rediscovering of the Mediterranean diet’, which might help in increasing the Microbial diversity, stability and health. He advises the use of probiotics and fermented foods like Kimchi, Kombucha, and Miso for the same.
Along with that, Dr Emeran advises to fast, to eat smaller portions, and to avoid eating when one is stressed, angry or sad. All these steps in combination would be a simple road towards wellness and optimal health. Although the book is scientific in nature, and a part of it delves into terminology that lay-people might not be conversant with. It is mostly fluid and accessible in nature. Through case studies, personal experiences, and a conversational style of writing Dr Emeran Mayer keeps the reader interested in this lesser known aspect of the human body.
Antonio Damasio, author of ‘Descartes Error’, in his book argues that “it is wrong to assume that only minds think. The body and our emotions have a key role in the way we think and in rational decision making”. He highlights the crucial role feelings play in decision making. These feelings are literally gut-feelings which Damasio calls Somatic markers. These reject certain options immediately and thus provide fewer alternatives to choose from for the Brain. Thus the gut does a part of thinking for the brain.
Dr Emeran Mayer takes Damasio’s thought further in the ‘Mind-Gut Connection’ and explores how the enteric nervous system communicates. While appreciating the ‘Mind-Gut Connection’ Damasio quotes: “After a long period of neglect the enteric nervous system has been recognized as the ‘second brain’. Dr. Emeran Mayer, a true expert on this topic, has now written the best laypublic guide yet to this spectacular part of ourselves.”