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Gut-Brain Microbiome Connection: How To Feed Your Brain

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The Gut-Brain Microbiome Connection: How To Feed Your Brain to Improve Your Mental Health and Anxiety

Is there a connection between brain and gut?

The gut-brain microbiome connection: How to feed your brain. We have a lot of nerve cells in our body, and those nerves send messages from the brain to other parts of the body. When your gut-brain is in balance, your entire body can function better. Here are some things that can help keep the gut brain microbiome connection strong: eat various whole foods, sleep well and manage stress. There is some solid research also showing gut-brain connection and mental health, including depression, anxiety, and our diet. To help start you off on a gut-brain connection diet, I included a healthy recipe for blueberry hemp overnight oats for you to consider at the end of this article.

Blueberry hemp overnight oats topped with flax seeds.

What is the brain-gut connection?

The gut-brain connection is the “axis” of communication between the digestive system and central nervous system. The brain communicates with our intestines through hormones, neurotransmitters, and immune signals to regulate digestion and immunity. In turn, the gut communicates with the brain to regulate mood, sleep and other functions.

The connection between your stomach and brain is a two-way street. The vagus nerve, which connects your brain to your stomach, sends messages in both directions. The gut-brain connection is the “axis” of communication between the digestive system and central nervous system. The brain communicates with our intestines through hormones, neurotransmitters, and immune signals to regulate digestion and immunity. In turn, the gut communicates with the brain to regulate mood, sleep and other functions.

YOUR SECOND BRAIN

 If there was ever a call for “digestive health,” this is it! Yes, it’s true. Your gut is considered your “second brain.” There is no denying it anymore. And because of the new scientific discoveries about the vagus nerve, the enteric nervous system, and the overwhelming influence your gut microbes can have, it’s no wonder what you eat feeds not only your body, but can directly affect your brain. I find it impressive (but not too surprising).

What exactly is the “gut-brain connection”?

Well, it’s complicated, and to be honest, we’re still learning lots about it! There appear to be multiple things working together. Things like:

  • The vagus nerve that links the gut directly to the brain;
  • The “enteric nervous system” (A.K.A. “second brain) that helps the complex intricacies of digestion flow with little to no involvement from the actual brain;
  • The massive amount of neurotransmitters produced by the gut; 
  • The huge part of the immune system that is in the gut, but can travel throughout the body; and,
  • The interactions and messages sent by the gut microbes.

This is complex. And amazing, if you ask me. I’ll briefly touch on these areas, and end off with a delicious healthy breakfast recipe (of course!)

Vagus nerve

There is a nerve that runs directly from the gut to the brain. And after reading this so far, you’ll probably get a sense of which direction 90% of the transmission is… Not from your brain to your gut (which is what we used to think), but from your gut up to your brain!

What is the enteric nervous system?

The enteric nervous system and neurotransmitters. Would you believe me if I told you the gut has more nerves than your spinal cord? I knew you would! And that’s why it’s referred to as the “second brain.” And, if you think about it, controlling the complex process of digestion (i.e. digestive enzymes, absorption of nutrients, the flow of food, etc.) should probably be done pretty “smartly”…don’t you think?

Infographic of the gut-brain connection and mental health.

NEUROTRANSMITTERS AND GUT HEALTH

And guess how these nerves speak to each other, and to other cells? By chemical messengers called “neurotransmitters.” In fact, many neurotransmitters that have a strong effect on our mood are made in the gut! e.g. a whopping 95% of serotonin is made in your gut, not in your brain! 

The Immune System of the Gut!

Because eating and drinking is a huge portal where disease-causing critters can get into your body, it makes sense that much of our defense system would be located there too, right? Seventy-five percent of our immune system is in our gut! And you know that the immune cells can move throughout the entire body and cause inflammation just about anywhere, right? Well, if they’re “activated” by something in the gut, they can potentially wreak havoc anywhere in the body. Including the potential to cause inflammation in the brain.

GUT MICROBES

Your friendly neighborhood gut residents. You have billions of those little guys happily living in your gut. And they do wondrous things, like help you digest certain foods, make certain vitamins, and even help to regulate inflammation!

GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION AND MENTAL HEALTH

The gut-brain axis is the connection between your digestive tract and your nervous system. It is the connection between your gut health and mental health, with research suggesting there is a significant link between anxiety disorders and digestive problems. So, let me explain further on the gut-brain connection and anxiety, stress, and depression.

ANXIETY AND GUT MICROBIOME

Many studies have found that patients with irritable bowel syndrome have a higher prevalence of anxiety disorders compared to the general population. Research has found that treating patients with IBS symptoms can lead to reductions in their symptoms of anxiety and depression, while treating patients with anxiety and depression can lead to reductions in IBS symptoms. Therefore, the gut-brain connection is a two-way street: your brain’s health affects your gut’s health, and vice versa. But more evidence shows that changes in your gut microbiota can impact your mood, and even other, more serious, mental health issues. How do these all work together for brain health? The honest answer to how these things work together is that we don’t really know yet. More studies are being done to learn more. But one thing is becoming clear. A healthy gut goes hand-in-hand with a healthy brain!

STRESS AND GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION

Another important component of a healthy gut-brain axis is low stress. The best way to achieve this? Meditation! One of the most important components of a healthy gut-brain axis is low stress. And one of the best ways you can achieve this is through meditation! Research has shown that mindfulness and other types of meditation can reduce the stress hormone cortisol.

FEED THE BRAIN THE GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION DIET

What foods help the gut-brain axis?

So, how do you feed your brain? Of course, various minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods is required, because no nutrients work alone. But two things that you many consider eating more of are fiber and omega-3 fats. Fiber (in fruits, veggies, nuts & seeds) helps feed your awesome gut microbes. And omega-3 fats (in fatty fish, walnuts, algae, and seeds like flax, chia, and hemp) are well-known inflammation-lowering brain boosters.

What are some other ways to improve your gut-brain axis?

You can start by eating foods that feed both you and your microbiome, like prebiotic foods like dark leafy greens and fermented foods. You can also add probiotics to your diet, such as yogurt, kimchi or kefir.

Oatmeal, foods that are good for the brain-gut connection diet.
Blueberry hemp overnight oats recipe card.

Blueberry Hemp Overnight Oats Recipe:

(Gut food: Fiber. Brain food: Omega-3):

Serves 2

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup of blueberries (fresh or frozen).
  • 2 tablespoons hemp seeds
  • 1 cup oats (gluten-free)
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup almond milk
  • ¼ cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds
  • 1 banana, sliced

Optional: Top with flax seeds for more fiber.

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Blend blueberries in the food processor until smooth.
  2. Mix blueberries, oats, almond milk, chia seeds, hemp seeds in a bowl with a lid. Let set in the fridge overnight.
  3. Split into two bowls and top with cinnamon, banana, and walnuts.
  4. Serve & enjoy this delicious bowl of blueberry hemp overnight oats!

HOT NUTRITION TIP:

Your gut microbes love to eat the fiber in the blueberries, oats, seeds, and nuts. Meanwhile, your brain loves the omega-3 fats in the seeds and nuts. Feed the brain the gut-brain connection diet for anxiety and depression.

References:

  1. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
  2. http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-probiotics
  3. http://www.precisionnutrition.com/fix-gut-fix-health
  4. http://neurotrition.ca/blog/your-gut-bugs-what-they-eat-and-7-ways-feed-them

WERE YOU SURPRISED TO LEARN ABOUT THE GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION?

Were you surprised to learn how much your gut health and brain are connected and can affect your mental health, including depression and anxiety symptoms? Will you be trying out a gut-brain connection diet? Star with my delicious breakfast recipe for blueberry hemp overnight oats? Let me know in the comment section below. I would also love to hear what you think, or take a photo and tag me @Eat_Your_Nutrition on Instagram. I love seeing your photos. #EatYourNutrition #LauraVillanueva

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I'm Laura, your go-to gut health holistic nutritionist!

Certified holistic nutritionist, nutrition and wellness author, content creator, and author. I teach women how to discover effective ways to become the healthiest version of themselves. My refreshing new approach to nutrition and healthy living has inspired many to make positive healthy lifestyle changes. I share many recipes for gut healing too.

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