The Mind-Gut Connection by Emeran Mayer, MD

I’ve been reading a lot about gut bacteria lately. I’m intrigued by the idea that those little gut bugs are controlling our food cravings and even our moods. So when I saw this book in the bookstore I couldn’t say no to buying it.

Other than brain-manipulation, there are two other diet-related subjects I really want to know more about. The first is, how is our industrialized environment affecting our health, in particular, our microbiome. Our environment is extremely complex and the things going into our bodies (food, air pollutants, herbicides, chemicals we come in contact with every day) all have an effect on us and our little symbiotic travel companions. The second thing that really interests me is the big picture of humanity, how we, our guts and our eating habits evolved over the past million and a half years. If Dr. Mayer could throw a little light on any of these subjects, I was going to be a happy camper.

As it turns out, this is a weird book. It’s obvious from the outset that the author knows a great deal about the current science on the various ways our microbiome talks to our brain. But he glosses over every other important aspect of the subject. For instance, he talks about food, but the main take-away is “don’t eat a fat-rich diet”. In a book about our guts, we are robbed of any cogent discussion of what happens to food after we eat it, the differing effects of good and bad food on our guts or why we like things that are bad for us. The message, “fat is bad” is not only wrong, outdated and possibly dangerous, the author should be embarrassed not to distinguish between good and bad fats. Nowhere in the book will you find the word “polyunsaturated”. Perhaps he thinks that’s too technical for us?

And he lingers on the subject of fat far too long. I kept thinking, what of the traditional Inuit diet which was 50% fat? If all fat causes inflammation, why didn’t the Inuit burst into flames? And why are we genetically programmed to like it so much? But nope, all we get is “fat is bad”. In a more rounded book that spends this much time on the issue of fat, I would expect the author to answer simple questions like, Is all fat bad? Is modern industrial-agriculture fat worse than hunter-gatherer fat? But no. “Fat is bad.”

While I’m bitching, let me mention that the author is in love with wondering. I understand gut science is in its infancy, but the overuse of words like ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, ‘possible’ comes across as speculation that any idiot can do – when what we signed up for was the current state of what is known. Give me a fact. I’m perfectly capable of asking my own dumb questions, thanks.

So I ended up with a few more details on the mechanisms of the gut-brain connection. But I didn’t get either of the items on my wish-list. Nothing about the big picture of our evolution. (Well, except for a bit about how our guts used to be a standalone critter and a section about the Yanomami which went exactly nowhere. His editor needs a Yanomami pool-cue club across the head for that blunder.) And nothing about how our environment affects our guts – unless you count the stress it causes and the one page on pesticides which came off like an essay a ninth grader couldn’t wait to scribble out so he could get back to gaming. Nothing about environmental pollutants, nothing about industrial agriculture. The guy should probably get out of the lab more.

Don’t waste your time on this frustrating book. Surely there are better-written ones on the subject out there.