Believe it or not, the amount of good bacteria we have inside our intestines directly influences our mood. Recent studies show that our brain affects our gut health and may even affect our brain health. This communication between the gut and the brain is technically known as the gut-brain axis. This article explores the gut-brain axis and foods and lifestyle strategies that are beneficial to its health.
Have you ever had a gut feeling or butterflies in your stomach? These sensations emanating in the belly show how our brain and gut are indeed connected.
How are the gut and brain connected?
The vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves connecting the gut to the brain, sending signals in both directions, like a closed circular system. Therefore, it stands to reason that whatever goes on in our gut, in response to how we eat, influences our brain. In the same way, whatever goes on in the emotional parts of our brain, particularly in response to stress, are also mirrored in our gut.
Gut microbes play a role in our emotions
Research shows that the vast community of trillions of micro organisms that live in our gut, known as the gut microbiome, are responsible for our resilience against the daily assaults that happen every day both inside and outside of our bodies. Amazingly, these micro organisms not only make up 80% of our immune system but they also control inflammation, making many different compounds that can affect brain health. They also “listen” to the gut, communicating to the brain how stressed, happy, or anxious we are. Alterations in the composition and function of the gut microbiome have been identified in many brain related disorders, including anxiety and depression.
Prebiotics, probiotics and the gut-brain axis
A diet high in a wide variety of prebiotic plant based fibres found in vegetables such as Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onion, leek, and asparagus have consistently been shown to increase the diversity and abundance of the gut microbes.
Similarly, fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso, and tempeh, contain probiotic bacteria such as lactic acid, which have been shown to alter brain activity. An increase in the amount of plant derived polyphenols found in green tea, dark berries, dark chocolate, olive oil and pomegranates have also been shown to increase the abundance of good gut microbes.
Disturbances to the gut-brain axis generally occur in response to a poor diet consisting of high damaging fats, high processed sugar, and low fibre; but also as a result of chronic stress.
Aside from supporting the gut microbiome through a plant rich diet, stress management should also be included, either by introducing a daily meditation, or breathing practice and spending time outside connecting to nature.
The bottom line
The gut-brain axis refers to the physical and chemical connections between the gut and the brain. By altering the types of bacteria in our gut through a nutrient dense, plant based diet, rich in prebiotic fibres, probiotic bacteria and polyphenol foods, whilst paying attention to stress management, will not only improve your gut health but may also improve your brain health.
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