Close your eyes.
Think of a time when you had a gut feeling about something—the first time you fell in love and had butterflies in your stomach. Or when you received bad news and felt a ‘pit’ in your stomach.
Truth is, none of that was physically happening in your stomach. The perceived emotions, feelings, or stressors sent signals from the brain to the gut, triggering this sensation that we’re all quite familiar with.
How? It’s called the gut-brain axis.
When I was a nutritionist working in clinical practice, we would often comment on how our society thinks of the human body in a disjointed manner.
If we’re having a problem with our heart, we go to a cardiologist; if we’re having a problem with our hormones, we go to an endocrinologist; if we’re having a problem with our gut, we go to a gastroenterologist.
The issue is that we slice and dice all of our symptoms and body parts, often overlooking the fact that the body is wildly interconnected.
When it comes to the brain, we think of it as the control center of our bodies. It tells your arm to move, it regulates your body temperature, processes feeling and emotion — the list goes on.
But more recent research has revealed that the brain and gut are connected not only by physical connections through the nervous system, but also biochemically, because what goes on in the gut directly impacts the brain (and vice versa).
Both brain and gut health are of great interest at Freshly — we develop our meals in an effort to provide nutrients that can support the whole body — but this conversation is particularly timely, seeing as May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
And, as The New York Times reported recently, “better eating may be another tool in helping to ease depression and anxiety and may lead to better mental health.”
In other words: Your symptoms of low mood, anxiety, poor focus, poor mental clarity, and even fatigue may not be specific to just your brain. There may be other factors, like the health of your gut, that could be influencing how your brain is functioning.
But, there’s good news: The foods you eat can influence both organ systems, and can cause improvements in some of these symptoms naturally.
So, what’s going on in the gut?
Allow me to nerd out a little.
The gut is a complex organ system that does much, much more than just digesting our food (the most obvious job). It is also critical in the absorption of nutrients, supporting the immune system, and producing by-products that impact the entire body’s systems.
Additionally, much attention recently has been brought to the microbiome — the ecosystem of microorganisms, or ‘bugs’, that live within our gut.
The gut contains an estimated 39 trillion microbes, according to the Weizmann Institute of Science. These ‘bugs’ help us digest food and absorb nutrients, support our immune system, and keep things in working order.
The trouble with having these friends in our guts, is that sometimes the party gets crashed when too many of the ‘bad guys’ start to take control. The overgrowth of these pesky bugs can result in what we call dysbiosis. This means that the balance of the good bugs (aka our “probiotics”) to bad bugs is skewed more towards the rebellious ones.
When this occurs, you may experience gastrointestinal symptoms — like minor bouts of constipation or diarrhea — or even be diagnosed with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
Whether or not you have GI issues, sometimes this dysbiosis can result in other symptoms that manifest in other areas of the body, such as the brain. Low mood or depression, anxiety or fatigue, poor memory, poor focus, and even fatigue can occur.
What’s the gut-probiotic connection?
Because bacteria and other microbes in the gut feed off of sugar and carbohydrates, it’s common for dysbiosis to occur when we consume a diet rich in these foods (think bread, pasta, sweets, desserts, and other high-carbohydrate or high-sugar foods). Yep, these bugs like pizza just as much as the rest of us.
In addition, many processed ingredients and even the use of antibiotics can negatively impact the balance of microbes in the gut.
On the other hand, if we’re not providing the proper nutrients and foods to support the good bacteria can also result in too much of our unwanted friends.
Probiotics, another hot-button topic, are strains of bacteria that are known to have beneficial effects. They are often referred to as our ‘good’ bacteria. Probiotics are certain strains of bacteria that support healthy digestion and produce by-products that have positive effects within the body by helping to digest fiber and absorb nutrients, for example.
Additionally, probiotics help support the production of serotonin in our body. That’s right — one of our “feel good” hormones for the brain is found within the gut. It’s reported that about 90% of our body’s serotonin is produced in the digestive tract, Caltech found.
How do I eat to support the gut-brain connection?
One way to enhance the balance of good bacteria is to consume fermented foods, like sauerkraut, kefir, and kimchi, which are great sources of probiotics.
Additionally, foods containing prebiotics can be helpful as well. Prebiotics are almost like food for probiotics (think of fertilizer for plants) that help support the growth and sustain the balance of these healthy bugs.
Prebiotics can be found in high-fiber foods like beans and legumes, and vegetables like sunchokes, leeks, plantains, onions and garlic, and asparagus.
Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale) are some of my favorite gut and brain supportive foods, because they’re high in fiber, minerals and vitamins (particularly several B Vitamins).
Certain B vitamins like folate, B6, and B2 all play a role in supporting the production of our feel good hormones in the brain, like dopamine and serotonin.
Without enough of these nutrients, we may not produce enough of these brain chemicals and start to feel symptoms. Additionally, they are high in fiber that help support the balance of bugs in our gut.
Beets are another one of my favorite gut and brain foods: Not only are they chock full of vitamins and minerals, but they also help to generate nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels and helps more oxygen reach the brain so it can receive the necessary nutrients to function at full capacity.
Another important food group to focus on is ensuring you’re getting enough healthy fats in your diet. Omega 3s, in particular, provide support for the cells of the brain and support proper development.
Found in salmon, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, chia and hemp seeds, omega 3 fats also help to support and protect the gastrointestinal system.
The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert chef to take care of your health. There are simple ways to incorporate these foods into your diet a few times per week.
For example, add a leafy green salad to your lunch or toss spinach into an omelet, roast a tray of broccoli and cauliflower to accompany dinner or swap regular rice with cauliflower rice instead (like we do here at Freshly). Aim to add a source of healthy fats, like wild salmon, to your menu once a week, or toss nuts and seeds on top of a salad.
Sprinkle in these ingredients on a regular basis and you’re taking a big step towards better eating. Trust me, your gut and brain will thank you.
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