Have you ever heard your gut referred to as your “second brain”?
It’s true. Doctors and researchers have acknowledged the gut-brain connection for years. Can you recall the feeling of butterflies in your stomach? We’ve all experienced it at an exciting time in our lives. This is the simplest example of the connection between the gut and the brain.
If you think back, you can probably think of several instances where different emotions may have triggered symptoms in the gut. The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines – and the connection goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals of distress to the gut. That means that unpleasant GI symptoms can be the cause or the result of anxiety, depression, stress or concentration problems. This is because the brain and the gastrointestinal system are literally connected – by the vagus nerve.
The Vagus Nerve
The gut and brain are constantly in communication via the vagus nerve. Think of the vagus nerve as a highway that runs from your brainstem down, connecting many important organs in your body – including the stomach and intestines. It is a significant part of the autonomous nervous system, which means it influences things you don’t even think about – your breathing, heart rate, and digestive function. It also plays a part in how you detect and modulate inflammation – a.k.a. feel pain. For these reasons and plenty more, it is important to keep your vagus nerve strong. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling are simple things you can do daily to stimulate and strengthen your vagus nerve.
Feed Your Microbiome
Did you know that 70% of your immune system is in your gut?! Your gut is made up of trillions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes known as the “microbiome”. There are good and bad bacteria within the microbiome, and the goal is to keep the good guys in charge. The good bacteria are responsible for comfortable digestion, strong immunity and also feeling good mentally. If you haven’t been feeling yourself physically or emotionally, an unhealthy microbiome could be to blame. The gut produces your “happy hormones” – serotonin, GABA and dopamine. It is important to help these calming neurotransmitters thrive so that you feel your best. A strong vagus nerve will then deliver the good feelings to your brain.
So how do you take care of your gut? You are what you eat! Eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet is the most important thing you can do to keep your gut healthy. Dr. Sears (Dr. Sears Wellness Institute) suggests following these simple steps to help nourish your good bacteria:
- Eat gut smart food: REAL food contains prebiotics and probiotics that literally feed your good bacteria. Aim to fill your plate with lots of colorful vegetables.
- Graze, don’t gorge: Eat slow and steady.
- CHEW, CHEW times two: “The better you chew, the better you poo.”
- Blend rather than juice: Smoothies contain fiber that feeds the good bacteria. Try starting your day out with a breakfast smoothie including plenty of fruit and veggies.
- Meditate more, agitate less: Stress negatively impacts your gut bacteria; “When your head is relaxed, your gut is relaxed”.
- Drink smart: Limit alcohol. Specifically, do not drink alcohol on an empty stomach.
- Move more, sit less: Movement mobilizes your gut and immune system. Adequate fiber in your diet plus movement allows your gut bacteria to make butyrate, which is a superfuel for your microbiome. We’ll talk a little more about this later!
- Go nuts! Nuts are a fiber-filled snack that will also feed your gut microbiota
Preparing most of your meals can be empowering, allowing you to be in control of the ingredients and ensuring proper fiber and nutrients.
Best Foods for Better Bowels
- Cottage Cheese
- Green Beans
- Green Tea
Incorporating certain foods can also boost your natural ability to produce those feel-good hormones:
Best Foods to Boost your Moods
- Dark Chocolate
- Low-fat Yogurt
Just as many fresh foods can feed your microbiome, many prepared or processed foods include ingredients that feed the bad bacteria and allow them to wreak havoc on your gut. The Standard American Diet (“SAD”) is just that – SAD! It is laden with convenience foods that have been stripped of nutrients. Additives allow the bad bacteria to flourish which can absolutely make you feel bad physically and emotionally. Read ingredient labels and be aware of these powerhouse threats:
- Artificial sweeteners and added sugars (including high fructose corn syrup)
- Artificial chemicals and flavor enhancers
- High fat, low fiber fast food (i.e. burgers, fries, nuggets)
- Pesticide-sprayed foods
- Nitrite meats
- Diet and sugar-sweetened drinks
Let’s talk a little more about butyrate, or butyric acid, and why it’s so important. Butyric acid is a food source to the microbiome, supplying the cells of your colon with most of its energy. Small amounts can be found in some food sources – such as butter, ghee and sauerkraut – but the large majority of it is naturally created when your body breaks down dietary fiber found in foods like artichokes, garlic, onions, asparagus, apples and bananas. Cooked and cooled starches – such as oats, beans, rice and potatoes – are another great source of energy for butyric acid production. The cooling process converts some of the digestible starches to resistant starches, meaning it remains undigested and provides a direct food source to those good bacteria. Yes – you can absolutely re-heat these foods at meal time, but studies have shown that allowing them to cool overnight after cooking actually tripled their resistant starch content – the primary food of butyric acid production!
Poor diet, antibiotics and radiation exposure can hinder your body’s natural ability to produce butyric acid. Incorporating foods that aid in the production of butyrate will give your body the fiber fuel it needs to maintain its own ability to create butyric acid.
Dr. Sears said it simplest: Fix your gut → fix your brain → fix your immune system.
Your gut will take care of you if you take care of your gut. Wise food choices will provide your body with the building blocks it needs to work best.
- Eat real food to give your body fuel.
- Think happy thoughts (your gut is listening!)
- Think of movement as exercise for your gut. Daily movement will give your good bacteria momentum to flourish. Added bonus: get some sunlight with your daily workout!
- Make sure the road along your highway isn’t “cracked”- sing or hum your favorite songs daily to keep a strong vagus nerve.
Dr Sears Wellness Institute, Mental Wellness and the Gut-Brain Connection (video): https://www.drsearswellnessinstitute.org/blog/mental-wellness-gut-brain-connection/?utm_source=email&utm_campaign=w_gut_brain&utm_content=coach&mc_cid=12a9631d2d&mc_eid=3a93fd50d1