Your gut has a brain

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Have you ever had “butterflies in your stomach” or felt a knot of tension build up? Our bodies tend to respond to certain emotions with physical reactions, and one way this happens is through the gut-brain connection. It’s widely known that our emotional states can significantly affect our digestive health; however, new research is suggesting that it may be the other way around too—our gut could actually be influencing how we feel mentally and emotionally. In this blog post, we’ll explore exactly how the gut-brain connection works and why it’s so important to pay attention to what’s going on below the surface when it comes to managing overall health.

Brain and guts: an unlikely pair.

Our brains act much like an engine to a car. The engine provides the power necessary to make the vehicle run, which sends signals to the other parts of the vehicle to continue chugging along. However, when engine power is stressed, it shows. Other components of the car begin to act very differently.

This same analogy applies to some of our body’s most critical organs. Your brain sends signals to your intestines when you experience stress. Cortisol (commonly known as “the” stress hormone) sends a signal along your nervous system to your brain, and your brain signals those stressors to your gut, causing you to feel “butterflies” in your stomach and nausea out of nowhere1.

You might be surprised to learn that stress travels both ways. When your gut is displeased, it has no problem letting your brain know, which can also cause tension and stress1. So, either way, it’s still easier to stress less and keep a healthy gut.

Gut health affects mood and overall well-being.

We’re bringing up stress again. Especially since stress seems to magnify almost everything that could go wrong with our bodies, we think it deserves mention, but this time we’re talking about stress’ effects on our brain and gut. Here’s a related fact. Did you know that you have a second brain? Well, not literally, but figuratively. According to scientists, inside the walls of your gut lie an enteric nervous system (ENS) that acts much like a “little brain” with a not-so-little impact2. More than 100 million nerve cells inside your intestinal lining from your esophagus and beyond send signals to your gut on how it should function2. While your ENS has nothing to do with cognitive abilities, scientists and doctors have found that it does communicate directly with your nervous system, can instigate shifts in your mood and overall well-being2. Your gastrointestinal system communicates with the central nervous system, which in turn can affect our dispositions. Because of this connection to our mood, it is important to maintain a healthy balance within your gastrointestinal system.

Here’s another gut check: Your immune system and gut bacteria are besties. 70% of your immune system is found in the gut3. When your immune cells communicate with the microbiome, the bacteria and fungi respond accordingly, and our diets can heavily impact this response. If your dietary journey primarily consists of processed foods, fat, and sugar, your gut might not convey the best message to your immune system3. However, if your diet is high in fiber, prebiotic, and probiotic-rich foods, your intestinal tract will relay a healthier tale.

For a healthy gut, start here.

What is considered a healthy gut? Your guts are healthy when your intestines and their good bacteria absorb the proper nutrients4. But when bad bacteria outweigh the good, it may become a challenge to stick to a healthy diet and can cause us to choose not so healthy foods. We’re not here to shame you for partaking in the occasional fast-food run or a cocktail. You don’t have to go cold turkey; moderation is always important4. However, there are also additional ways to help improve your gut health.

Reducing tension and stress can also help good gut bacteria and fungi to grow and absorb nutrients that will be helpful and not hurtful to your body. The more tension you are under, the more favorable the environment is for harmful bacteria to produce. As discussed before, the gut communicates with the brain and can impact our mood.

Good food is great fuel for a healthy gut.

Another way to give your gut a boost? When it comes to fruits and veggies, add more color! Each color you consume increases your chance of absorbing different nutrients, which does wonders for the good bacteria in your gut. Asparagus, green peppers, oranges, and apples with skin are just a few yummy examples to help keep your gut healthy.

Whole grains

Whole grains contain more fiber than refined carbohydrates, making them a great food ingredient to for gut health. Guts ferment fiber that produces fatty amino acids and encourages the health of cells along the gut lining; as we now know, these cells are directly associated with your immune health9.

Leafy greens

Spinach, kale, and other leafy greens help the good bacteria in your gut bloom9. It features high levels of fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, and more. It’s essential for your microbiome and your overall health.

Lean meats

Wild-caught fish is an excellent substitute for red meat, for those trying to limit fat in their diets.

Healthy fats

The words “healthy” and “fats” may sound like a paradox, but foods with good fats, such as avocado slices and canola oil, effectively support immune function3. According to nutritionists, 20 – 35% of calories should come from healthy polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats11. Polyunsaturated fats are fat molecules with more than one unsaturated carbon bond that can help to provide nutrients to develop and maintain your body’s cells12. Monounsaturated fats are fat molecules with one unsaturated carbon bond. It, too, can help assist nutrients in building and maintaining cells within the body13. Foods, including soybean, sunflower, and corn oil, contain polyunsaturated fats. Olive, canola, sesame oil, avocados, and many types of nuts are monounsaturated fats.

Low fructose fruits

Like most of us, you’ve probably operated under the assumption that all fruit is healthy, a better alternative to candy and cookies. While this may be true, you should also know that certain fruits have higher fructose than others. Why does this matter? If you are affected by the occasional bloating or gas, you want to ingest the least amount of fructose possible. Foods like berries and citrus fruits will help.

Prebiotics and Probiotics for great gut health.

Eating prebiotics and probiotics is amazing for your gut. You’re probably asking yourself, pre, pro, what’s the difference? Prebiotics supports the growth of good bacteria in your gut4. Probiotics are good live bacteria that balance your gut’s microbe levels and digestion4. Bananas, artichokes, beans, and nuts are great natural prebiotics. Foods such as yogurt with live cultures, kombucha, and miso are categorized as probiotics. Probiotics and prebiotics can be found in food or supplements and are fiber types, a.k.a roughage (which makes stool easier to exit)8.

Fiber incorporated into your diet gives good bacteria the fuel it needs to grow4. This statement may sound contradictory, but your body doesn’t digest fiber. It breaks it down, fermenting it in the colon. Most fiber typically passes through your stomach, small intestine, and colon before exiting your body8. However, it does help with things like bowel health, helping maintain healthy blood sugar levels, and maintaining a healthier weight. There’s even science-based advice on how much fiber you should consume. Men’s and women’s recommended daily fiber intake is 35 grams and 25 grams, respectively.

A balanced diet for a balanced brain.

Your brain reflects what you eat. Medical experts compare the relationship between food and your brain to putting gas in an expensive car. The lower the fuel grade (food) you put into your vehicle, the less reliable your car’s performance will be, but the more premium the fuel (food), the more likely your vehicle will run smoothly7.

Your gut also produces a neurotransmitter called serotonin that helps regulate your sleep, appetite, and mood. Believe it or not, 95% of serotonin is produced in your gut7. When the good bacteria are doing well, it limits the harmful bacteria in your gut, making it easier to digest your body’s nutrients. When it comes down to food, you must be in tune with the way it affects your body. One way to understand how certain foods affect your body is to subtly limit the foods that make you feel bad, like processed foods and sugar. Then assess how your body reacts and go from there.

Take your stress level down a couple of notches.

It doesn’t take much to cause stress these days. Tension can happen just walking to your car. But the billion-dollar question is, how do you manage your stress? Cortisol is a stress hormone sent throughout your body that can impact your mental and physical health. Stressing less may seem impossible when you’ve tried everything, but it is not. Here are some ways that can help:

Get physical – When you work out or stay active, you increase the level of endorphins (hormones released by your body with the ability to block cortisol). You don’t have to run five miles to stay moving. A brisk walk can do the trick. Stay active on your level.
Eat healthily – Incorporating colorful fruits and veggies, fiber-rich foods (prebiotics and probiotics), healthy fats, lean meats, and low-fructose fruits into a balanced diet will help. A healthy gut can lead to a healthier you.
Meditate – Sometimes all it takes is focus and isolation to lower your stress levels. A meditation reset can bring your mind and body the Zen it needs to restore your peace and carry you through the day. Meditation has been a medicine for the mind and body for many years. It can give you a sense of calm and balance that you need to cope with stress, and there isn’t just one meditation type10.
Here are a few meditation techniques that might be worth a try10:

• Guided meditation – Allowing you to visualize pictures, sounds, textures, or places that bring your peace.

• Mantra meditation – Repeating a word that brings about inner peace.

• Mindfulness meditation – Living in the moment and having increased awareness of today.

• Transcendental meditation – Using a word, sound, or phrase of personal significance and silently repeating it to yourself meaningfully.

Get more sleep – The appropriate amount of sleep decreases your chance of being groggy in the morning and reduces your likelihood of taking on stress. A lack of sleep can cause an increase in cortisol production, so stress less and sleep more. If you can’t shake off your stress monster, here are a few more options that may help. Click here for solutions to help keep you and your gut stress-less and well-rested.*

In the end, despite all the information you now know about gut health, how your gut communicates with one of your body’s most essential muscles, the brain, is totally up to you. The food and good bacteria that you consume, when it comes to reducing stress and tension, not only affects how you digest nutrients but can impact your mood, your thoughts, and your overall health.

1 The gut-brain connection – Harvard Health Publishing / Harvard Medical School
2 The brain-gut connection – John Hopkins Medicine
4 How to improve your gut health – MD Anderson Center
5 How your gut microbiome impacts your health – Cleveland Clinic
6 Stress management – Mayo Clinic
7 Nutritional psychiatry – Harvard Health Publishing / Harvard Medical School
8 Nutrition and healthy – Mayo Clinic
9 5 foods to improve your digestion – John Hopkins Medicine
10 Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress – Mayo Clinic
11 Choose healthy fats – Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
12 Polyunsaturated fat – American Heart Association
13 Monounsaturated fat – American Heart Association