5 Ways to Heal Your Gut for Better Brain Health
Gut instincts are real and getting butterflies when we’re nervous happens because our nervous system and our digestive systems are intertwined. The complex array of nerves in and around our gut are often called our second brain.
The enteric nervous system runs through our digestive system, has around 100 million neurons and is connected to our brain via our vagus nerve. Our brain talks to our gut and our gut talks to our brain. There is a two way communication, meaning that our thoughts can influence our gut bacteria that reside there, causing low-grade inflammation and gastrointestinal distress.
Similarly there are some ways in which our gut bacteria can influence our brain and even our mood and our thoughts –
Research has demonstrated that probiotics can modulate anxiety and depression. In particular lactobacillus, bifidobacterium and akkermansia can improve brain and mood disorders. Latest research has even discovered ‘post-biotics’ which are essentially the by-products (metabolites) of probiotics which can send messages to our brain.
There is often a high incidence of people with mental health concerns who also have digestive issues. The two things seem to often go hand in hand.
One of the main drivers for this might be leaky gut.
A leaky gut is essentially when the lining of the gut becomes slightly permeable to particles it shouldn’t be let into our system. These may include food particles, toxins, bacteria and chemicals. These particles can travel around our circulatory system and even up to our brain, crossing the blood brain barrier and making our brain inflamed. This is in part caused by messages from our immune system via cytokines that activate our immune response to what it believes to be invaders.
Leaky gut can cause depression, fatigue, confusion, poor memory and general mental confusion. It is also estimated that two thirds of adults and children on the autistic spectrum have GI disorders.
So, people with IBS tend to also have some kind of mood, anxiety disorder too. This might be because the enteric nervous system controls the neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine). For example 90% of our serotonin is made in our gut to help regulate the movement of our internal digestive lining, so it could be said that a sensitive gut may also mean a sensitive brain.
In fact 90% of communication runs from our gut to our brain, and only 10% from our brain to our gut. The vagus nerve plays a huge part in regulating our hormones, enzymes, satiety and much more. And like with anything, there needs to be balance. There are two sides to the nervous system, the sympathetic ‘on the go’ side and the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ side. This is why it’s important that we give our digestive systems a chance to rest, and also why when we’re stressed, fearful, anxious or worried, this can impact our digestive system – making it’s capacity to function more compromised.
Here are 5 Ways That You Can Heal Your Gut For Better Brain Health
1 – Remove any foods that your immune system may be reacting to. This could mean running a food sensitivities test, or trying an elimination diet. Your body is often in tune with what these foods are if you listen. They are often either the foods that you have an aversion to anyway, OR they are the foods that you eat a lot of, which over time your immune system has become fed up with! You might just need some time out from these foods.
2 – Replace some missing components from your digestive system. The digestive tract is very long and complex and for it to work properly each step needs to be working optimally. It might be that you’re not producing enough stomach acid to kill off bugs and begin the digestive process, or that you lack certain enzymes that breakdown either protein, carbs or fat, or that bile acid is not following correctly from your gallbladder.
Addressing these issues can be done using functional testing and supplementation in some cases, and to address the root cause of the dysfunction.
3 – Re-inoculate the gut flora. Probiotics aren’t for everyone, and if you’re healthy you shouldn’t need to supplement them. But used to target certain low levels of beneficial bacteria or an overall imbalance in the beneficial versus the unbeneficial bacteria can have a hugely positive impact, not only on gut function but also in immune regulation and brain and mood disorders.
4 – Repair the gut lining. This is an essential step, but the first steps need to have been put in place before this can happen. The lining of the gut is only one cell thick and it regenerates itself around every three days. The constant onslaught of forgein particles that it needs to assess potential pathogens and toxins means that it can easily have micro-tears in it.
5 – Re-balance – This final step is key, because as we’ve said, it’s a two way street between our minds and our guts. Adjusting our lifestyle for less stress by doing small amounts of meditation, yoga, breathing, walking in nature and having fun will all help to heal us from the inside.
And, here are some nutrients that you can make sure you’re getting plenty of to help with your brain and mood function.
Ensure you are eating plenty of oily fish as these contain EPA and DHA which are vital for brain function and can help to boost your mood. At least two portions per week is ideal.
Alongside this, increase your intake of green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli and watercress. Dark greens contain magnesium which is important for many functions of the brain, and these nutrient dense foods also help to beat anxiety and depression due to their wide complex of nourishing nutrients and fibre which feed the goodbugs for better gut health.
Don’t only eat green, eat the rainbow! This includes things such as strawberries, blueberries, sweet potato, and apples. Vibrant colours mean that these foods contain phytonutrients which are high in antioxidants such as vitamin C, A, E and K, which help to fight free radical build up in the body and in turn have beneficial effects on our brain.
As discussed, inflammation is a big driver for brain related issues and so it makes sense to include anti-inflammatory foods such as fish, vegetables, berries and turmeric.
While I don’t advocate snacking, I would recommend the occasional handful of nuts, either with your food, or as a snack on the side. These contain beneficial nutrients such as zinc and selenium. Zinc can support our natural defence system and low zinc can lead to low serotonin, which is a risk factor for increased depression and anxiety.
Whether you’re vegan or carnivore, include some beans and pulses! One cup of chickpeas, for example, provides 85% of your daily B6, which is required to make serotonin, and helps to create melatonin which regulates our body clocks. Low B6 can cause trouble concentrating, and can cause irritability, nervousness and sadness. So, adding mixed beans to a chilli will give you a boost of vital nutrients.
Animal protein does have it’s benefits and so I would recommend (for those that eat it) beef because it contains omega 3, iron, folate and B12. B12 is very important for producing crucial brain chemicals which regulate our mood and iron supplies the brain with red blood cells which helps with better overall function. In addition to this, eggs are a brilliant powerhouse of nutrients, for example, eggs contain choline which is needed to make neurotransmitters and cell membranes which are key for learning and memory.
Finally, enjoy a green tea and a square of dark chocolate!
Green tea may improve brain function, reduce anxiety and improve memory as it contains a collection of bioactive compounds such as L-thianine which works together to increase GABA, which positively influences our mood. And dark chocolate contains potassium, fibre, magnesium, zinc, iron and flavonoids. The flavonoids can increase energy, focus, mood and memory. A square or two of dark chocolate a day can increase feelings of calm and contentment and help to beat depression.
If you are struggling with any of these things then you can book a free discovery call with me here, where I will happily guide you through some of the solutions that I can offer in my 1-2-1 sessions.