Primal Numbers – Brains and Bacteria

You are what you eat. They’re wise words, and it’s not hard to see the connection between what we eat and the way we feel. But did you also know that your diet has a direct effect on your memory? Whether you’re studying for an exam or trying to remember your passwords, the bacteria in your gut might just make or break your brainpower.

The latest link between brains and bacteria comes from a study at Oregon State University. As SciTechDaily reports, diets that are high in certain kinds of food can “cause changes in gut bacteria that appear related to a significant loss of ’cognitive flexibility’.” In other words, your brain’s ability to adapt when faced with new or changing situations.

The dietary culprits should come as no surprise?high-fat and high-sugar diets. Compared to healthier choices, the high-sugar diet showed the greatest effect on memory. The decline doesn’t take long to happen, either. In studies using mice, all it took was four weeks of a high-fat or high-sugar diet to cause a drop in the animals’ brain power.

That may be because the changes come straight from your gut, almost as soon as you’ve finished chewing that double-cheese pizza or drinking that can of pop. High levels of fat and sugar alter the microbiome in your gut. They’re just one part of the more than 100 trillion microorganisms that affect our health. And researchers now know that those bacteria send signals to and from the human brain. Garbage in, as they say, makes for garbage out.

And here’s the biggest quandary. Our diets are usually poorest at a time when we’re using our brains the most?as students.

The stereotype of students cramming over ramen noodles, pizza, and Kraft Dinner has become a cliché for good reason. Plenty of post-secondary students are short on both time and money, and quick, easy meals hit the spot. Running late on an assignment, or trying to grab a meal between lectures and a part-time job? Nutrition labels are great, but speed and convenience will trump them when you’re crunched for time.

That time squeeze can be even greater for mature students with families and full-time jobs. A bowl of sugar-coated cereal is just the thing when you’re still hitting the textbooks at midnight and the alarm is set for five a.m.

Still, the news about brains and bacteria should be seen as a good thing. It’s a reminder that the foods we eat today don’t have some vague, years-in-the-future effect on our health. They alter us now, often within hours or minutes of eating them. They can change our brains, our memories, and our odds of succeeding at our goals, whether that’s becoming a whiz at CSS or Shakespeare’s sonnets.

So whether you need to memorize Plato or passwords, spare a thought for those millions of bacteria in your gut. And feed them well, because they’re fuelling your brain.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.