Nutrition and the Gut-Brain Connection
We’ve all been hearing a lot about the Gut-Brain connection, and how important a healthy gut microbiome is for overall mental, physical and even emotional health.
Have you ever experienced the so-called “gut feeling” about some events, or felt “butterflies in your tummy” in a new situation?
If so, you have already experienced two examples of the proven fact that your gut and your brain are connected – what happens in the one, can affect the other.
There are four ways in which the gut and the brain are connected:
1) Through The Vagus Nerve
Through the Vagus nerve, which is one of the biggest nerves connecting your brain and your gut, and sends signals in both directions.
Reseach shows that stress can inhibit (or block) the signals sent through the Vagus nerve, causing gastro-intestinal problems. In the opposite direction, increasing the amount of Probiotics in the gastro-intestinal system can reduce stress – but when the Vagus nerve is not functioning optimally, the increased Probiotic has a lesser effect on the stress-level experienced.
2) Through Neurotransmitters
Simply put, a neurotransmitter is a chemical substance that sends a signal from one nerve fiber to the next, for instance from one part of the brain to another part, or from the brain to a specific organ or muscle.
Serotonin is a well-known neurotransmitter, causing feelings of happiness and reducing stress levels. And now for the important part: Serotonin is not only produced in the brain as previously thought; a large proportion of Serotonin is produced in the gut!
Your gut microbes (microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, parasites, viruses and more) also produce a transmitter called GABA, which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety. And certain probiotics can increase the production of GABA, and reduce anxiety and depression-like behavior.
3) Gut microbes make chemicals
Gut microbes make other chemicals that affect the brain
The trillions of microbes in the gut also make other chemicals affecting how your brain works. One of these is “short-chain fatty acids”, produced by digesting fiber, and affecting the brain, for example by reducing appetite.
4) Gut microbes affect inflammation
Your Gut-brain axis is also connected through the immune system. If your immune system is switched on for too long, it can lead to inflammation which is associated with a number of brain disorders like depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
We also explained that while some bacteria are associated with disease, others are extremely important for your immune system, heart, weight, and many other aspects of your health.
Let us now take a look at some preliminary research results in this regard:
- An imbalance between healthy and unhealthy microbes may contribute to weight gain. Probiotics are good for a healthy microbiome, and can lead to weight loss.
- The microbiome can also affect gut health, and may play a role in intestinal diseases like IBS and IBD. A healthy gut microbiome controls gut health by communicating with the intestinal cells, digesting certain foods and preventing disease-causing bacteria from sticking to the intestinal walls.
- Certain bacteria within the gut microbiome can produce chemicals that may block arteries and lead to heart disease. However, probiotics may help lower cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.
- The gut microbiome plays a role in controlling blood sugar and may also affect the onset of type 1 diabetes in children.
How to improve your gut microbiome
HOW CAN YOU IMPROVE YOUR GUT MICROBIOME, AND THEREFORE YOUR PHYSICAL/NUTRITIONAL HEALTH?
- Eat a diverse range of foods: this can lead to a diverse microbiome, which is an indicator of good gut health (legumes, beans, vegetables and fruit contains lots of fiber and can promote the growth of healthy bacteria).
- Eat fermented foods: fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir all contain healthy bacteria, and can reduce the amount of disease-causing substances in the gut.
- Eat prebiotic foods: prebiotics are a type of fiber that stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria. This includes bananas, asparagus, oats, barley, flaxseeds, wheat bran, apples and artichokes. It can also be taken as a supplement.
- Eat whole grains: whole grains contain lots of fiber and beneficial carbs like beta-glucan, which are digested by gut bacteria to benefit weight, cancer risk, and diabetes.
- Try a plant-based diet: Vegetarian diets may help reduce levels of disease-causing bacteria such as E.coli, as well as inflammation and cholesterol.
- Eat foods rich in polyphenols: Polyphenols are plant compounds found in red wine, green tea, dark chocolate, olive oil and whole grains. They are broken down by the microbiome to stimulate healthy bacterial growth.
- Take a good quality probiotic supplement: Probiotics are live bacteria that can help restore the gut to a healthy and balanced state.
- Take antibiotics only when necessary: Antibiotics kill many bad and good bacteria in the gut microbiome, possibly contributing to weight gain and antibiotic resistance.
- Limit the intake of alcohol and caffeine:Both alcohol and caffeine cause the esophageal sphincter to relax, which increases your risk of heart burn or acid reflux. Alcohol also increases the acid in your stomach, and excessive drinking can harm your stomach lining.
- Breastfeed for at least twelve months. Studies have proven that these children have more beneficial Bifidobacteria than those who are bottle-fed.
The research findings regarding the factors affecting the microbiome, and the role of pro- and prebiotics, are in some cases not conclusive yet. The preliminary results and trends are, however, strong enough to encourage you to implement the above in your meal plan and lifestyle.