The gut-brain connection is more than a marketing buzz word. It’s an area of research that’s gaining traction in the medical community, and something you should be aware of if you want to improve your mental health.
We all know that what we eat impacts our physical health. But it’s not just food that affects your body — the state of your gut can have a big influence on your brain as well!
Read on to learn more.
The Gut-Brain connection
The gut and brain are connected in several ways, including a connection via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that sends messages from the gut to the brain and vice-versa. The gut and brain can also be connected through the immune system, the enteric nervous system, and the microbiome. A microbiome, in short, is the “good” bacteria in your intestine, which have been found to directly influence mental health. In other words, improving the state of your gut is great for your mental health.
Surprising, right?! You wouldn’t think that eating healthy foods would have a direct effect on your mental health, but the science behind it seems to make sense. “The human body has sophisticated mechanisms for dealing with bacteria, and when the microbes get out of balance, including within the gut, you can experience anything from GI distress and digestive issues to obesity, anxiety and depression. We now know that there are clear connections between diet and mental health.” — Amita Sharma, Executive Summit of the American Board of Gastroenterology.
How does your diet affect your mental health and brain function?
Your diet affects your mental health and brain function. Eating a healthy and balanced diet and avoiding highly processed or sugary food and beverages can help you to think more clearly and feel better. Studies have also found that the gut can also influence the brain’s response to stress. Our Circadian rhythms, which are the 24-hour rhythmic changes that serve as a major marker of mental health, are also influenced by gut microbiota. Furthermore, it is possible that some aspects of your personality are directly influenced by your gut microbes! But don't go blaming that jelly donut you had for breakfast for your crummy attitude. Armed with the right knowledge (and a whole heap of planning and willpower), we know that eating the right types of foods and maintaining a healthy, diverse microbiome can create a positive shift in our overall health and wellness.
What foods can help improve mental health?
There are specific foods, like prebiotics and probiotics, that you can eat to influence mental health as well. Prebiotics feed the "good" bacteria in your gut. Probiotics are little life-forms that live in your gut and help to maintain balance in your digestive system. Probiotics can be found in fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha and kimchi tea. Prebiotics and Probiotics are also in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.
Probiotics play a role in the individual’s immune system. “We intuitively know that the gut-brain connection is important, but it turns out it is also important for the individual and can contribute to any disease from asthma to depression,” says Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, an adjunct clinical professor of neurology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and medical director of Northwestern’s Center for Gut Health. “The brain’s immune defenses work overtime to maintain an adequate balance of gut and brain bacteria. If the gut bacteria get out of balance, your immune system has a harder time doing its job."
Getting Started with Gut Health
This is where the fun part comes in-- you get to try new foods and integrate new, healthful habits into your daily routine! In addition to eating a colorful & clean diet-- full of dark, leafy greens, lean proteins, seeds, nuts & berries-- you can choose to supplement with prebiotics and probiotics to fill any nutritional gaps.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed with new information but take heart! Better physical and mental health is within reach if you make it a priority to begin eating the right foods and using quality supplements to get the job done!Remember, what you consume can either help or hinder you on your health & wellness journey.