The Gut-Brain Connection: How To Feed Your Brain

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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 amazing 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 all amazing (but not too surprising).

What Exactly is the "Gut-Brain Connection?

Well, it’s very complex, and to be honest, we’re still learning lots about it.

There seems 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 number of neurotransmitters produced by the gut

  • The huge part of the immune system that is in the gut, but can travel throughout the body

  • The interactions and messages sent by the gut microbes.

This is complex. And so cool, if you ask me.

I’ll briefly touch on these areas, and then end off with a delicious recipe (of course!)

Vagus Nerve

There is a nerve that runs directly between the gut and the brain called the vagus nerve.

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!

The Enteric Nervous System and Neurotransmitters

Would you believe me if I told you that 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.

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?

And guess how these nerves speak to each other, and to other cells? By chemical messengers called "neurotransmitters."

In fact, many of the neurotransmitters that have a strong effect on our mood are made in the gut. A whopping 95% of serotonin is made in your gut, not in your brain.

Your may be starting to wonder…. Can the cause of my sadness/irritability/depression/anger be related to my gut health? is my mood affected by the quality of food I eat? The answer to these questions is a resounding YES!

And there’s more to consider.

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 total sense that much of our defense system would be located there too, right?

A whopping seventy-five percent of our immune system is in our gut.

And, our immune cells can move throughout the entire body and cause inflammation just about anywhere. So, if they’re “activated” by something in the gut, they can potentially wreak havoc anywhere in the body. This includes the potential to cause inflammation in the brain. Heads up here for my ladies who complain about brain fog or memory loss, this is a huge thing to consider.

Gut Microbes

Gut micobes are our friendly neighborhood gut residents. You have billions of those little guys happily living in your gut. And they do amazing things like help you digest certain foods, make certain vitamins, and even help regulate inflammation.

More and more research studies are showing 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 answer to how these things all work together is that we really don't know just yet. As more and more studies are conducted, we learn more about this gut-brain connection.

One thing though is becoming clear: A healthy gut goes hand-in-hand with a healthy brain.

So, just how do you feed your brain?

JERF (just eat real foods)

To begin with, it’s important to eat a variety of minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods. No nutrients work alone. This means getting rid of most things that come in a package. That includes minimally eating foods like packaged snack foods (pretzels, chips, muffins), sweets, frozen prepared foods (like pizza or frozen dinners), packaged meat products, and sugary drinks.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to cook every breakfast, lunch, and dinner from scratch. Instead, you can still use convenience staples like canned beans or frozen vegetables or a jar of marinara sauce to use as a convenient and quick start to any meal if needed. Just try and ditch the overly processed stuff.

To feed your brain, there are two things you many consider eating more of, fiber and omega-3 fats. Fiber (in fruits, veggies, nuts & seeds) help to 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.

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Recipe: Blueberry Hemp Overnight Oats (with fiber for the gut, omega-3’s for the brain):

Serves 2

1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)

1 cup oats (gluten-free)

1 cup almond milk

1 tablespoon chia seeds

2 tablespoons hemp seeds

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1 banana, sliced

¼ cup chopped walnuts

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 fridge overnight.

  3. Split into two bowls and top with cinnamon, banana, and walnuts.

Serve & enjoy!

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.

References:

http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626

http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_body/the-brain-gut-connection

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-probiotics

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/fix-gut-fix-health

http://neurotrition.ca/blog/your-gut-bugs-what-they-eat-and-7-ways-feed-them

Laurie Terzo