Have you ever had butterflies in your stomach when you were excited or nervous? Perhaps you had a “gut feeling” that helped you form an opinion? There’s a physical reason for this…
Your gut and brain are physically connected through millions of nerves, the best known of which is the vagus nerve – the longest nerve originating from the brain: an information superhighway. Additionally, brains and guts are connected through neurotransmitters; these are chemicals that control feelings and emotions. Some of the best-known neurotransmitters are serotonin – a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety. These chemicals affect how your brain works and one of the places they are made within the body is in the trillions of microbes that live in your gut.
Nutritionists call the communication system between your gut and brain the “gut-brain axis”. The more that the gut-brain axis is researched, the more evidence is found that your brain affects your gut health and your gut can affect your brain health too.
Are our gut bacteria under threat?
In short – yes. Consuming ultra-processed foods present in Western diets has long been considered a factor contributing to the loss of bacteria diversity in our bodies. These foods can supress our ‘good bacteria’ and actually increase ‘bad bacteria’. Some of the biggest offenders include fizzy drinks, margarines and spreads, biscuits, refined breakfast cereals, energy bars, meat nuggets and pre-packaged ready meals.
Antibiotics can kill ‘good’ bacteria as well as ‘bad’. Sometime these can’t be avoided though, so read on to find out what you can do to help get your gut healthy again afterwards.
How can we help our guts and our brains to be healthy and happy?
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the answer also lies in food. Firstly, reducing your intake of processed foods can get your gut going in the right direction. Furthermore, replacing processed food with a range of food from the following categories can particularly nurture the most beneficial ‘good bacteria’ within us. Let’s look at what we should be eating:
High-fibre foods: Most people eat less fibre than they should. Wholegrains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables all contain special nutrients that help your gut bacteria do truly amazing things – like supress the production of stress hormones. NB if your diet is low in fibre, a sudden increase can cause wind and bloating which can be avoided if you make gradual changes and drink extra water.
Omega-3 fats: You’ll come across these in oily fish. These are needed by the brain to function properly. Providing your body with enough Omega 3 may help to prevent poor concentration and emotional issues like depression, excessive mood swings and undue anxiety.
Polyphenol-rich foods: Cocoa, green tea, olive oil and coffee all contain polyphenols – these are plant chemicals that are digested by certain beneficial gut bacteria. When you can, choose extra-virgin olive oil over other fats as it contains the most polyphenols.
Tryptophan-rich foods: Tryptophan can help the production of serotonin (remember that well-being chemical…). Foods that are high in tryptophan include turkey, eggs and cheese.
This is a great way to make us aware of what we are eating and to open our eyes to the wonderful array of colourful food available to us. Simply keep track of every different food you eat for a week and aim for at least 50 foods which are all colours of the rainbow, the brighter the better! Red and white onions count as two different foods, bread and pasta count as just one i.e. wheat. Herbs spices and oils all count as individual ingredients. Could you have 50 fresh, brightly coloured foods in a week?
Let’s increase our food diversity!
If you’d like to chat about nutrition, please get in touch. We have the nutritional expertise you need to investigate a wide range of health conditions and help you to make positive changes through food.