Over the past few years, I have tended to concentrate more on the “health” aspect of “health & fitness” as opposed to the only the fitness element. Partly due to my own health encounters, chronic pain, partly due to a slightly older body, and partly down to thinking that there must be more to it than just it.
Social media has of course helped, with science now being far more accessible, both in terms of how it is presented, but also by the ease of access. Which is good really, because if I was not able to read about the science part, I don’t think I would fully believe what I heard that the brain and gut “talk” to each other – or even more bizarre, that myokines function is the communication of a working muscle to the brain, gut, liver, and skin. Sounds like science fiction to me…….but it is science fact and here is how it helps you stay healthy.
Let’s start with exercise, since this tends to be the “go-to” when we want to get fitter. We can see exercise as a positive tool in being able to change the shape of our bodies, both inside (bone health) and out. We all know that exercise makes us feel good when we do it, and after the event, and exercise is positively linked to mental health and wellbeing.
Exercise additionally is linked to improving the immune system – which has been of great effect during the pandemic, when we can see that moving muscle provokes and increase in “cytokines”. Cytokines are small proteins that form an important role in controlling the activity and growth of our blood cells and immune system cells that help the body to fight disease such as cancer, infections inflammatory response. Some cytokines play a role in initiating the inflammatory response, and excessive response can contribute rather than manage the inflammatory response - this is linked to increased risk of cancer and heart disease, two of the biggest killers in the world. And here is where we see the brain gut connection starting to work, as this excessive response is linked to diet, especially a diet that this high in processed sugar. Usually at this point, I can see people roll their eyes a bit and switch off because of a thought that being told what to do, or what to eat, is annoyingly “nanny state” – but bear with me. Think of this blog like a series of facts that you can think about, and then make your own decision. I am not here to judge what you eat, more to say, listen to your gut instinct..
The complex network of communication between not only what we eat and the immune system, but also what exercise we do is one of the more fascinating aspects of looking after your health. Take for example doing squats. A great functional exercise for many, and a good indicator of your health and longevity too. Regular exercise and the contraction of your muscles causes this change to cytokines that then helps to protect our health. What is important is that we “challenge” muscle. Which is to say that we look to move them in a way that they are not used to. This questions maybe that the goal is forever to increase the weight we are lifting, to looking at more complex lifts, more dynamic lifting and incorporating weights into various aspects of our work.
Myokines can now be seen as the direct effect of our muscle fibres on the release of cytokines to protect our health. They are key to helping us live a longer, healthier life. Here is how we can harness this knowledge and help ourselves counteract the current westernised way of living which is fairly sedentary and obesogenic.
There is a kind of re-occurring theme in these blogs about “diet and exercise” – but these are two factors of which you have control of. Other issues such as your age, gender, job, childhood activities, illness etc are out of your control. Working with the things you can change has the biggest positive influence on your health – regardless of the others.
Let’s start with exercise – how much, how long, why bother, and how does it affect brain health?
What’s interesting is that physical exercise, is gradually becoming a focus for cancer treatment.. This is all down to the Myokines that are activated when we work muscle – and they can be seen as promising anti-ageing molecules that also have a key role in helping to prevent obesity, dementia, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes[i]. Just as exercise is seen to promote these myokines to release and protect our bodies, it seems that physical inactivity impairs it - and could be a key explanation of the links between a sedentary lifestyle and chronic disease[ii]. So, moving of any kind, is the first step in activating these myokines to help protect your health.
When we exercise regularly (think at least 3 times a week) we start this process to protect our bodies our bodies produce myokines that then affect areas of our body, and they do this via a “cross talk” between the muscles and other organs such as the brain, our body fat, our bones, liver, gut, pancreas, skin as well as the muscle itself[iii] This of course is quite complex (!) but, also totally fascinating. They do this through affecting cognition (think BDNF/hippocampus, and see earlier posts), the “browning” of white fat – which is to say to change white, stored, inert fat, into a metabolically active one to help us with weight loss. Increased bone formation – crucial to all and one that I will be discussing in my osteoporosis workshop. Endothelial cell function – that is the smooth muscle on the inside of the gut and heart, making it more efficient. Improves our skin structure better than any collagen that you buy to digest (and doesn’t taste foul!). Finally, they regulate our muscle mass and increase this by hypertrophy – which is key to being able to remain active in old age, from little things like being able to lift yourself out of a chair, or off the floor, to more serious conditions linked to loss of muscle mass due to the ageing process.
To do this, you need to do combined aerobic and resistance training. There is no magic formula. Stick to the things you know work – 5-7 times a week of regular aerobic work, plus 2-3 times of resistance training – more to follow on this in the next blog.
Let’s look at diet
Again, nothing new here as to what we should eat. The quality and quantity of foods that we eat ultimately determines our overall physical health[iv] But, the news that the “microbiomes” can help us improve our health – not only of the muscles, but also of the brain. Microbiomes are tiny bits of bugs such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, that live within our bodies. Some are good for us, some cause inflammation which in turn can lead to disease. We get these from our environment, right from when we are born, what our DNA is, what we were fed on as children, and our general environment. Having an illness, or antibiotics can disrupt the gut bacteria – and we all notice when we eat different food, or eat abroad etc, we can sometimes have a more bloated and irritated stomach.
Many of these gut bacteria rely on fibre to keep them healthy – and this can be the first key in helping your body to return to a healthier gut. However, make sure that your transition is cautious and over weeks to lesson that kick response we discussed.
First, try to expand the food stuffs you eat. Think about trying new things, alongside your normal diet for a few weeks, to start to introduce some probiotics to the gut. Definitely increase your green veg, legumes, beans, and fruit. These can be grated, shredded, and added to your meal, or set yourself a challenge to eat 5-10 portions of fruit and veg a day. Fermented foods can take some getting used to, but eating sauerkraut or drinking Kiefer is an easy win. We have already talked about fibre, so try to increase that, and also add some dark food – think dark chocolate, almonds, onions, and red wine (!) but not too much ok!
Then start to think about “removing” food that can cause irritation. So processed sugar is always up there, alongside the usual suspects of highly processed food, fried food, food that contain pesticide or antibiotics etc. Think of yourself as a plant that needs to grow and not a waste paper bin where you throw everything in. There is so much to discuss about this, that I will do a separate blog. In the meantime, get yourself a good cook book about this subject - there are loads out there and you can probably get them in second hand book stores too. Each day counts, so start now x
Health gut microbiota influences cognitive function, including stress related behaviours such as anxiety and depression[v] - this remains as a great challenge for our scientists. In the meantime, realise it is there. “Talk” to your brain and body with good food and nurturing exercise.
If you are interested in this, then join me in Café Dolig where we examine how this works in practical terms for us, both through exercise and diet. Starts Monday 31st October. I will also highlight this in the Osteoporosis talk on Sunday 30th October that you can listen to online. Together we can make a difference
 Journal Article: Bente Klarlund Pedersen,Thorbjörn C. A. Åkerström, Anders R. Nielsen, Christian P. Fischer. Role of myokines in exercise and metabolism: 2007. Journal of Applied Physiology  Qianrui Huang, Mengling Wu, Xuyi Wu, Yiwen Zhang, Yong Xia, Muscle-to-tumor crosstalk: The effect of exercise-induced myokine on cancer progression, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Reviews on Cancer, Volume 1877, Issue 5, 2022
[i] Kwon JH, Moon KM, Min KW. Exercise-Induced Myokines can Explain the Importance of Physical Activity in the Elderly: An Overview. Healthcare (Basel). 2020 Oct 1;8(4):378. doi: 10.3390/healthcare8040378. PMID: 33019579; PMCID: PMC7712334. [ii] Leal LG, Lopes MA, Batista ML Jr. Physical Exercise-Induced Myokines and Muscle-Adipose Tissue Crosstalk: A Review of Current Knowledge and the Implications for Health and Metabolic Diseases. Front Physiol. 2018 Sep 24;9:1307. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2018.01307. PMID: 30319436; PMCID: PMC6166321. [iii] Journal Article. A Severinsen, Mai Charlotte Krogh. A Pedersen, Bente Klarlund. T Muscle–Organ Crosstalk: The Emerging Roles of Myokines Endocrine Reviews 2020 10.1210/endrev/bnaa016 Endocrine Reviews V 41 [iv] Lemons, Johanna M. S., A Liu, LinShu. 2022 Nutrients, 2072-6643 Chewing the Fat with Microbes: Lipid Crosstalk in the Gut [v] A psychology of the human brain–gut–microbiome axis. Andrew P. Allen,Timothy G. Dinan,Gerard Clarke,John F. Cryan 2017