If you’ve ever ‘…gone with your gut’ to make a decision, or felt ‘butterflies in your stomach’ when nervous, you’re likely getting signals from an unexpected source: your second brain. Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this ‘brain in your gut’ is revolutionizing our understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health, and even the way you think.
Unlike the brain in your skull, the brain in your belly can’t generate tricky ‘Excel formulae’ or help you remember where you left your keys, but it does play a central role in whole body communication. The technical name for your belly brain is the enteric nervous system (ENS). It’s technically not in your belly either. It consists of two thin layers of over 100 million nerve cells that line your gastrointestinal tract, all the way from your oesophagus to your rectum.
It’s hard to think that your gut could control how you feel, but once you realise that your gut has the capacity to produce not only the same chemical messengers that your brain does, but also several chemicals that your brain needs, it makes it easier to understand.
Your gut plays host to trillions of different types of good bacteria that make up their own mini ecosystem known as the gut microbiome. Despite what you may have heard, not all bacteria are bad. Good bacteria play a central role in the digestion of food and the absorption of important nutrients. These good gut bacteria also produce hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate basic physiological processes, as well as mental processes such as learning, memory and mood. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that directly contributes to feelings of happiness.
When you consider this constant communication between your brain and your gut, its clear that the health of your gut goes a bit further than simply ‘keeping you regular’. A growing body of evidence is showing just how important gut health is to mental health. Studies on animals, for example, have shown that a change in gut health correlates to a change in mental health; a plausible explanation as to why those who suffer from gastrointestinal problems, such as IBS and Crohn’s, are also at higher risk for mood disorders. Notice how when you’re stressed, you suffer from stomach pain or constipation? Same theory.
While research into the complexities of the gut-brain axis is ongoing, something we know with certainty is that a healthy diet results in a healthy gut. If a healthy gut has the possibility of improving mental health, then this is a promising avenue to explore.
How to ensure a healthy gut and provide support to your ‘belly brain’:
- Ensure your diet includes the following – they have been shown to improve both gut and brain health
- Omega 3 fatty acids
- Fermented foods, such as kefir, yoghurt and sauerkraut
- Nuts, seeds and fresh vegetables
- Eggs and cheese – these contain tryptophan, which is converted by the gut into the neurotransmitter serotonin.
- Eat less sugar
- Avoid unnecessary antibiotics
- Drink more water
- Exercise regularly
- Ensure you get sufficient sleep each night
- Probiotic Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 Reduces Depression Scores and Alters Brain Activity: A Pilot Study in Patients With Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Pubmed
- The Gut-Brain Connection: How it Works and The Role of Nutrition – Healthline.com
- The Simplified guide to the gut-brain axis: Psychscenehum.com
- The microbiota–gut–brain axis: Nature.com
- The Brain-Gut Team : Karger.com
- Omega-3 fatty acids correlate with gut microbiome diversity and production of N-carbamylglutamate in middle aged and elderly women: Scientific Reports Journal
Bacteria: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The gut is more than just a few organs strung together with a small intestine! It is a living eco-system, working 24/7 to keep you healthy. An estimated 100 trillion micro-organisms, representing more than 500 different species, inhabit every normal, healthy gut. A healthy gut bacterial colony, also known as the gut microbiome, has been linked to a reduced risk of several health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and even depression.
Living a healthy lifestyle – exercising, sleeping well, and eating a balanced lifestyle – supports the microbiome and promotes the diversity of the good bacteria that lives there, whereas stress, alcohol, and certain medications all cause harm.
The more diversity of bacteria living in your gut, the better. In addition to supporting the microbiome with a healthy lifestyle, you can also supply your gut with live bacteria in the form of probiotics.
Probiotics are found on every pharmacy shelf, but can just as easily be found in your kitchen. Growing your own probiotics, for example in the form of kefir, is an easy and affordable way of keeping your gut, and the rest of you, healthy. Learn how to do that from the video below, or CLICK HERE to watch.