The Gut-Brain Connection: How Healing Your Gut May Support Your Overall Well-Being
While it might seem initially startling that the gut is capable of affecting your brain, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests how important your gut is in relation to your mind. Some scientists refer to the gut as the “second brain” for the sake of describing just how powerful the gut is at detecting emotions. The gut can sense feelings like calmness in safe situations or trigger the fight or flight reaction in potentially dangerous situations.
Have you ever had a gut feeling when making a decision or felt an overwhelming sense of fear in a situation? The sensation of butterflies in the stomach before a presentation or feeling gut-wrenching emotions are felt in the gut for a reason. These signals in the body are a way of sensing and understanding emotions.
Understanding how the gut’s health works in relation to the brain can help improve your overall health and wellness. Here’s how the gut-brain axis works and six foods you can eat to support your gut health.
How Does the Gut-Brain Connection Work?
The gut is formally known as the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS consists of over 100 million nerve cells that line the entire length of the gastrointestinal tract (1). While the gut is incapable of impressive reasoning and thought skills carried out by the brain, it does effectively communicate with your brain. The bidirectional communication between the ENS and the central nervous system (CNS) is known as the gut-brain axis.
Communication in the gut-brain axis can happen in the following ways:
- The vagus nerve uses sensory neurons to carry information from the intestines to the brain stem.
- The bacteria in the gut can signal gut hormones to enter into the bloodstream.
- The gut functions as most of the body’s immune system.
- Chronic stress can trigger leaky gut syndrome.
- Microbial metabolites known as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium produce GABA, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain.
- Bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids, which stimulate the nervous system and guide the memory and learning process in the brain (2).
The gastrointestinal system contains a tremendous amount of gut microbes. The gut microbiota influences appetite and food intake (3). The major function of the gut is digestion, nutrient absorption, and elimination. Aside from the basics of digestion, the gut responds to psychological stressors by carrying information to the brain.
In essence, the gut can tell the brain information before the brain perceives the information. You might have experienced a pit in your stomach or a gut reaction to a situation before you cognitively knew something was amiss. This is the gut-brain axis in action (4).
The Development of the Amazing Gut Microbiome
In the recent studies of the past decade, it has come to the attention of researchers that the gut microbiota is the main regulator of the gut-brain axis. The diversity of trillions of microbes is mainly made up of bacteria, in the form of two types called Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. Microbial cells are so abundant that they outnumber human cells (5).
There is evidence that microbiota composition is formed in fetuses before birth. An infant’s microbiota is formed by feeding patterns, and a microorganism called Clostridium is introduced from the air and the mother’s skin (6).
From birth up until the first 3 to 5 years of life, the gut microbiota is fully formed. The bacteria in the gut remains stable throughout the lifespan, only to be altered by bacterial infections, antibiotics, and lifestyle and diet changes. A shift in the microbial system fosters risk factors for disease (7).
How Gut Health Relates to Mental Health
Since the brain and the gut are connected, your gut has a profound influence on your mood, health, and cognition. The science behind the gut and how it affects the brain is still budding, but there are some promising correlations to pay attention to. Let’s dive in.
Gut Health and Anxiety
Due to the very intimate connection between the gut and the brain, there are links to anxiety and digestive issues (8). Feeling nauseated before a big event or having an upset stomach due to stress is very common. Stress, anxiety, and depression can significantly affect the contractions of the GI tract and create unpleasant symptoms. Stress and other psychological conditions can increase inflammation and the likelihood of infection (9).
The connection between the well-being of the gut is correlated to the brain’s health and vice versa, meaning that taking care of the gut can reduce psychological conditions. Conversely, stress reduction can positively impact the gut’s health (10).
In order to have both a healthy functioning brain and a happy gut, they both must be given proper care. When the gut is healthy, the brain functions much better, which is a relief to many of those who suffer from mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression (11).
The gut may also be affecting the brain of those who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (12). It’s common for those with IBS also suffer from anxiety and depression. Some studies have shown that the symptoms of IBS, like constipation, bloating, pain, and diarrhea, may trigger signals to the central nervous system. These signals can lead to mood changes, like anxiety and depression (13).
Gut Health and Stress
Is it possible that your gastrointestinal troubles are due to stress? If we experience pain or discomfort in the form of stomach aches, diarrhea, or heartburn, we typically treat the problem at the source. However, the problem may not be stemming from the stomach at all.
These tummy troubles can be the direct response of stress (14). Dealing with and reducing stress can have a positive impact on stomach issues.
When we experience the symptoms of stress, we may brush them off as a symptom of something else entirely (15). Stiff muscles, restlessness, loss of interest in sex, weight loss or gain, and sleep problems are all potential physical responses to stress. Behaviorally, stress can manifest in procrastination habits, teeth grinding, rumination, and withdrawal from others. Emotional triggers from stress are probably easily identified as a stress response, like crying, anger, indecisiveness, poor memory, and nervousness.
If you display a number of the symptoms commonly stemming from stress, as well as stomach and digestion problems, reducing stress may reduce the uncomfortable issues and digestive ailments (16).
The Important Role of Nutrition in the Gut-Brain Connection
The health of your gut is important for all of the major functions of the body, not just the brain. The body’s immune cells are almost entirely in the gut (17). When the bacteria of the gut are out of balance, the immune response is not functioning at its highest capacity.
Potential Signs of an Unhealthy Gut:
- Autoimmune Diseases: All autoimmune diseases are linked to an unhealthy gut, not just the inflammatory bowel diseases including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis (18).
- Mood Disorders: Gut bacteria influence neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine (19).
- Weight Gain: Gut bacteria affect how we store fat, blood sugar levels, and hormones that trigger hunger or satiety (20).
- Fatigue: We often assume that tiredness is due to our busy lifestyles, but the bacteria levels in the gut can often be the culprit (21).
- Skin Conditions: Probiotics can greatly improve the skin’s complexion and reduce acne, eczema, psoriasis, and more (22).
- Headaches and Migraines: Migraine sufferers often have GI disorders, showing that healing the gut may improve headache pain (23).
- Sinus Issues: The reduction in diversity of gut bacteria results in higher chances of hay fever and pollen allergies (24).
6 Foods to Aid Gut Health
1. Bone Broth
Collagen, gelatin, and glutamine are the building blocks to a healthier gut and they are contained in bone broth. Bone broth is easy to digest and is absorbed by the body immediately, making it helpful for your gut, skin, and joint health.
2. Steamed Vegetables
When healing a troubled gut, it is best to steam vegetables to digest them easier. Vegetables are full of fiber and lessen the inflammation in the GI tract (26).
3. Non-Dairy Fermented Foods
Non-dairy alternatives like coconut milk yogurt and kefir are filled with probiotics, the bacteria that helps support the gut. Other fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut are loaded with probiotics help cleanse the digestive system.
4. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is a healthy fat that contains the saturated fat lauric acid, which makes the oil antifungal and antimicrobial, and therefore beneficial to the gut (27). Coconut oil is also anti-inflammatory, so it is recommended to improve inflammatory bowel conditions.
5. Grass-Fed Meats
Grass-fed meats are more nutritious, are higher in healthy fats, and higher levels of antioxidants. It’s important to decipher between conventionally fed (grain-fed) animals and pasture-raised animals. When an animal is grass-fed, it spends its life grazing on grass and plants, as opposed to grains, meaning the meat is higher in anti-inflammatory omega–3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E (28).
6. Fatty Fish/Fish Oil
Another source of essential omega–3 fatty acids is wild-caught fish or fish oil supplements. Many people take fish oil supplements daily if they do not regularly consume oily fish in their diets. The recommended daily intake is 1,100 milligrams for women and 1,600 milligrams for men (29). Be sure to consult your doctor before adding supplements to your routine.
The First Steps to Improve Gut Health Right Now
To begin supporting your gut health, focus on adding the nutrient-dense foods listed above into your diet. Download this free Leaky Gut Diet Food List and take it with you the next time you go to the grocery store. You’ll have access to all of the foods to incorporate into your diet, and which ones to avoid, making the shopping trip much easier.
Don’t forget to add bone broth to your shopping list! The mouth-watering soups and savory bone broths from Kettle & Fire can be easily incorporated into your diet. Bone broth is a simple way to promote your gut health and strengthen the gut-brain connection.
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