How a healthy gut supports a healthy brain and how to achieve both
Gut and brain are connected and support each other, that’s why it’s so important to keep them healthy.
World Mental Health Day is a growing global movement celebrated on 10th October each year. The past 18 months have been particularly difficult for just about everyone. It’s crucial that we find solutions to our mental health crisis. One growing area of interest is the connection between the gut and brain health.
Mental health has no boundaries. It affects young, old, rich, poor, across all our continents. In the UK nearly half of all adults feel they have experienced a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their lives. The UK’s Mental Health Foundation is a leading organisation providing research and support to this important aspect of our health.
So, how are the gut and brain connected?
Our Second Brain
The enteric nervous system is a mesh-like system of over 100 million nerve cells that control the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract. It controls movement and motility. As some of you will know, the contents of the gut can travel far too fast or far too slow!
The nerves also control the secretion of important digestive secretions like stomach acid and digestive enzymes. These are essential to break down our food and enable the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream.
It is called the second brain because it can operate independently of the brain (if the vagus nerve was cut in an extreme situation) but it is communicating with the brain all the time. There is a two-way flow of information – each influencing the other.
That feeling of butterflies in your stomach? Or feeling sick before an important event? These really do happen and show the enteric nervous system in operation. We know that large emotional triggers can cause upset in the gut and the research now also shows that this happens the other way round. The gut is influencing our mind and behaviour.
This explains why people who experience IBS and bowel irregularity may also experience depression and anxiety. With children, research has shown that children with ADHD often have gut disorders like IBS too.
The gut and brain are communicating through a series of neurotransmitters. Serotonin has many roles in the body but is well known as being the “hormone” associated with calmness and happiness. Most serotonin in the body is produced in the gut – far more than in the brain! GABA another neurotransmitter helps control feelings of anxiety and fear. This is also produced in the gut by certain gut bacteria.
Blood Brain Barrier
The blood–brain barrier (BBB) separates the brain from the rest of the body. It prevents toxins and other damaging components from entering the brain. Many studies have shown how our gut microbiota has a direct influence on the BBB in both positive and negative ways.
The Impact of Gut Microbiota
We have one hundred trillion bacteria in our gut – ten times the cells in the body. We are more microbes than we are human! At least one thousands species have been identified so far. We have a mutually beneficial relationship with our microbes. By taking care of them they will take care of us.
But it’s not all good news. We have a delicate balance between the beneficial bacteria (that support our health) and pathogenic bacteria that damage it.
- Lack of gut microbiota diversity plays a role in the development of depression.
- Antibiotic use (which depletes beneficial bacteria) increases the risk of depression
- Certain strains of bacteria shed toxins that enhance the stress response.
- Pathogenic bacteria create toxins that damage the gut lining, creating inflammation which has been shown to enhance depression, anxiety and autism.
Probiotic strains have very specific functions that benefit brain health such as:
- Specific probiotic strains have been linked to improvement to SAD
- Other strains help to improve memory when we are under stress.
- They help modify and prevent an over-exaggerated stress response
- Further research has shown improvement to migraine.
- Butyrate from certain gut species enhances the production of neurotransmitters, decreases inflammation, and enhances the production of new neurones.
- Bifidobacteria synthesises B vitamins that are essential for the nervous system
So how do we support our gut and brain health?
Polyphenols help the growth of beneficial bacteria and have been linked to improved cognition too. Pomegranate, cranberries, plums, raspberries, green tea, olive oil and coffee all contain polyphenols, which are plant chemicals that are digested by your gut bacteria.
These feed the beneficial bacteria to support their abundance and diversity. Blueberries, almonds, brown rice, blackcurrants, green tea, very dark chocolate.
They are fermented by gut bacteria to produce short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and these promote the growth of further beneficial bacteria. Such as psyllium husk, slippery elm and pectin. One of my favourite gut nourishing foods for depleted individuals is stewed apple (skinned, no sugar, with cinnamon). Apples are a rich source of pectin so eat a little every day.
Whole grains like brown rice (and avoiding gluten grains like wheat and rye), nuts, seeds, pulses, fruit and vegetables all contain soluble and insoluble fibre that help to keep transit time regular, helps elimination of toxins and lowers the risk of inflammatory conditions.
We are more familiar with these functional foods now from yogurt, kefir, to sauerkraut. The fermentation process increases levels of beneficial bacteria particularly lactic acid bacteria. They have been shown to beneficially enhance brain activity.
Omega-3 fats EPA and DHA
These fats are found in oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel) and cannot be manufactured in the body. The brain is particularly rich in these fats which it requires for both structure and function. These fats have an important anti-inflammatory action across the entire body. Studies have shown that these fats not only support production of beneficial bacteria but also help to reduce risk of brain disorders.
Eating these foods should become a way of life. The hidden community of bacteria is driving many aspects of our health (either positive or negative). Do all you can to keep your brain healthy by taking care of your microbiome.
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