Gut Feelings – Happy Gut, Happy Brain
Wait, I have two brains?
Yes, you do! Think of a time when you felt sick to your stomach because you were nervous or scared. Was it before writing a test or an exam? Or maybe it was before going on a first date. Most of us can relate to the feeling of having “butterflies” in our stomach and thanks to current leading-edge research, we are learning that these “gut feelings” are more than just a metaphor.
The Second Brain
The second brain refers to the network of nerves that surround the entire length of your intestines. This network, also known as the enteric nervous system, contains more nerves than your spinal cord and is one of the main communication channels between your gut and your brain. How does communication take place? There is a long nerve called the vagus nerve that extends from the brain through your torso, reaching your internal organs and all parts of your digestive system. Signals are sent using neurotransmitters and the fascinating part is that this channel is a two-way street. While the brain sends signals to direct bodily functions like heart rate and digestion, the gut is also sending signals that directly influence your mood. Interestingly, researchers are discovering that about 80-90% of signals are actually sent from the gut and when the vagus nerve is severed, digestion is unaffected.
So, how exactly is the gut sending these signals?
Meet Your Microbiota
Researchers have estimated that we have about 100 trillion bacteria, fungi and non- human cells residing in and on our bodies. The vast majority of these microbes live in our gut and is what we refer to as our microbiota. It is well known that beneficial bacteria play a major role in digestion. However, what if I told you that these microbes are also busy making chemicals to communicate with each other and with your brain, affecting your mood, thoughts and overall mental state. For example, our Lacto and Bifido friends both produce GABA, a calming neurotransmitter that helps reduce anxiety.
Serotonin, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, is also manufactured in the gut. In fact, up to 90% of it is, which means that we produce more serotonin in our gut than in our brains!
The bad news is that your friendly bacteria aren’t the only ones that can influence your health. When your microbiota is diverse and healthy, the good microbes keep the pathogens under control. But when this delicate balance is disrupted, pathogenic microbes take over causing sugar cravings, inflammation and leaks in the gut – ultimately making us sick. As Hippocrates first said “all disease begins in the gut” and today’s research is confirming that there is no denying it. The health of our microbiota is proving to be so central to our mental wellbeing that in 2014, the National Institute of Mental Health spent more than $1 million to study this relationship.
4 Ways To Support the Gut-Brain Connection
Eating the right kinds of food will always be the best way to achieve and maintain a healthy gut. Here are 4 simple ways to support your gut flora and boost your mood.
1. Eat more probiotics
Probiotics are the friendly bacteria and yeasts that live in your gut. The best way to repopulate these microbes is by eating fermented foods. Luckily, fermented foods are widely available. My favorites include kefir, kombucha, miso and cultured veggies like kimchi and pickles. If you suffer from dysbiosis and need a boost, taking a probiotic supplement may be helpful.
2. Eat more prebiotics
If you eat a high-fiber diet, you are likely consuming prebiotics. Prebiotics are plant fibers that the body cannot fully break down. They become fuel for many of the beneficial microbes that inhabit your colon. Some of the best food sources of prebiotics include raw garlic, onions, chicory root, dandelion greens, jicama and Jerusalem artichokes. Consuming prebiotics and probiotics together will keep your gut flora lively and diverse.
3. Say no to junk food
While you add the right kinds of food to your diet, you need to remove the bad ones too. Not only are highly processed and refined foods void of any nutrition, they also affect your gut health and mood. Foods like sweets, chips and baked goods contain lots of sugar, which feeds the pathogenic bacteria resulting in cravings, inflammation and even depression. If there is one single change to make to your diet now, it’s cutting down on sugar.
4. Drink filtered water
Just like certain foods can create imbalances in your gut flora, so can the water you drink. Modern water systems prevent us from disease, yet the use of chemicals like chlorine kills our good bacteria too. The best way to ensure your water is pure is by using a water filtering system in your home. There are a variety of systems available, including reverse osmosis and activated carbon filters. If you’re like me and don’t want to put anything on your body that you wouldn’t consume, I suggest using a shower or bath filter as well. Your skin is the largest organ of your body and does a great job at absorbing unwanted toxins. The Big Carrot has a great selection of shower and bath filters which you can find at the Customer Service desk. The one that I use at home is the AquasmartÒ shower purifier.
There is no doubt that how you feel mentally is connected to what’s going on inside of you. In celebration of Brain Awareness Week, I encourage you to take control of your mental health by nurturing your second brain. Your friendly microbes will thank you and you will feel great! Remember, a happy gut is a happy brain J.
Nathalie Brusch, Certified Nutritional Practitioner
Scott C. Anderson, John F. Cryan, Ted Dinan: “The psychobiotic revolution: mood, food, and the new science of the gut-brain connection”. Washington, DC: National Geographic Partners, 2017.
David Perlmutter: “Brain maker: the power of gut microbes to heal and protect your brain for life. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
Blog photo by: Olliss.