The gut-brain connection is a powerful tool which may help optimize health on several levels. Learn more about it, the gut microbiome, and how you can keep your gut health in tip top shape!
Did you know the brain and the gut are tightly connected? It’s called the gut-brain axis, and it’s incredibly powerful. The gut feelings you get with certain emotions (anxiety, intuition, fear, etc.) show us just how connected our brain is with our gut.
Because of the gut-brain connection, the gut is even sometimes called the second brain. Your gut health might affect your brain health, and vice versa. Read on to learn all about the gut-brain axis, why it’s important, and what to eat for a healthy gut (and brain)!
How are the gut and brain connected?
The gut and the brain are connected physically and on a biochemical level. Our brains and central nervous system (CNS) contain billions of neurons, which are cells that process and transmit information.
In fact, the gut contains its own nervous system, the enteric nervous system (ENS), with billions of its own neurons. The vagus nerve is one of the largest neurons, and connects the gut and the brain, sending information back and forth between the two (1).
The gut and brain also both produce neurotransmitters. These are chemical messengers that allow neurons to communicate with each other. Neurotransmitters influence several bodily functions, including sleep, appetite, and mood.
The brain and the gut both produce neurotransmitters, including serotonin and GABA. Serotonin modulates several functions, including mood, appetite, memory, and reward (2). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, so it can increase relaxation, feelings of calm, and balance your mood (3).
Now that you know how closely the brain and the gut are connected, how do we keep our gut health in tip top shape? Read on to learn more!
Importance of the gut microbiome
The gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and archaea (4). The total sum of all these organisms is called the gut microbiome. Each person’s gut microbiome is unique to them, and may play a big role in our overall health.
Bacteria in the colon produces short chain fatty acids (SCFA) when the feed on fiber. SCFAs are great for our health because they are found in fiber-rich foods. They also might benefit the brain, mediating cognition and emotion (5). So when the gut is able to produce even more SCFAs for us, we optimize and balance our health.
To keep the bacteria in our guts healthy (and therefore, provide benefits to the brain), we need to fuel them properly. When we eat an energy-dense, nutrient-lacking diet, our gut microbiome may become weakened and contain unfavorable organisms. There is some promising research showing a healthy gut microbiome may play a role in certain diseases, including cardiovascular disease, IBS, and IBD (6).
Additionally, the gut contains a large portion of the immune system. A healthy, flourishing gut microbiome enhances and regulates immunity and the immune response (7).
What to eat to optimize the gut-brain connection
So, how do you nurture the gut-brain connection to keep your physical and biochemical functioning in excellent shape? It starts with nourishing your gut microbiome (all those little organisms that live in your gut). Here are some foods to eat that promote the growth of good bacteria in our guts, which will positively impact the gut-brain axis.
Probiotics are foods that contain live microorganisms that help restore and populate the gut microbiome. Note that fermented foods have probiotics. Probiotic rich foods include:
Prebiotics are foods that contain prebiotic fiber, which actually feeds the organisms in our gut microbiome. Prebiotics are just as important as probiotics in the diet! Prebiotic rich foods include:
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential in the diet, because our bodies do not make them. These fats are essential for brain health and development, and help fight inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet may positively impact the gut microbiome (8). Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids include:
Algae and seaweed
The gut-brain connection plays an important role in our overall health and immunity. It may help regulate mood, appetite, sleep, and more. A well-balanced diet that includes probiotics, prebiotics, and omega-3 fatty acids to nourish our gut microbiome.