The health of each of our body parts doesn’t exist in a vacuum – and this is no truer than for the gut and brain. These two parts share an unbreakable bond, and with the right dietary and lifestyle choices, you can make it work to your benefit. Here’s how to do it.
Have you considered that your low mood and anxiety could be linked to your frequent bloated gut and blocked up bowels? The gut and brain and more closely related than you know – in fact, the gut has accurately been referred to as our second brain. But if you’re someone who frequently gets a worrying gut feeling in the presence of danger, you may not be so surprised to learn the reason for this common nickname. It comes down to the fact that the gut and brain share a number of neurotransmitters, so if something’s amiss in your gut, chances are you’ll experience anything from fluctuating moods to irritability and stress – and vice versa.
Many a coeliac has reported feeling a sense of impending doom and severe anxiety upon consuming gluten – many are surprised that these mental health symptoms are actually caused by the chaos erupting in the gut. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to get this connection working to your benefit.
Ditch the ultra-processed, sugary foods
Buying the occasional processed foods is okay, but when the ingredients list is as long as the side-effect warning page on your meds, it’s probably a sign to put it back on the shelf. Keeping the processing to a minimum is essential for maintaining those vital nutrients, along with reducing the added sugars which do a number on your gut.
The sugars are major offenders for gut dysfunction, and this is because excess consumption leads to changes to the gut bacteria, with research finding high-sugar diets can lower microbial diversity, which then affects our immune response. This is because it creates higher levels of Proteobacteria, which is an indicator of an unbalanced microbiome. Studies show this can actually interrupt our brain chemistry too, leaving us open to a range of conditions – including mental health disorders. In fact, studies have shown rates of depression are greater in those who eat a high-sugar diet and another study shows that same diet leads to higher rates of anxiety too. Another study shines the light on sugary beverages – consuming just 2 serves a day resulted in 22% higher stress hormone levels, according to a study. So, ditch the junk food, fast food, sugary snacks and flavoured yoghurts and opt instead for whole, minimally processed foods.
Get your joggers on
We know exercise can get our endorphins going, giving us a much-needed mood boost, plus it’s a useful way to channel extra energy, anxiousness or restlessness into a heart and brain-healthy activity, but that’s not all exercise is good for. It can also play an interesting role in our gut health – this is because it helps us digest our food by moving it through the intestine quicker. If you’re dealing with gut troubles like constipation, exercise can actually prevent the loss of moisture in our stool. The result? An easier, smoother bowel movement, which helps keep our gut healthy – and by extension, our brain.
Plus, exercise is proven to have a direct effect on mental health, with American Psychological Association revealing that that just 5 minutes of exercise can boost our mood. New research has also found that while diet may be more impactful than exercise in maintaining our health, adding in exercise gives us a boost, leading to better gut health and weight-loss results.
Get your daily fibre
Fibre not only helps slow the absorption of sugar, it also helps us regulate our bowel movements, along with preventing constipation and bloating. Highly-processed foods tend to lack this nutrient, which is why so many people are blocked up after eating a typical western diet of white bread, sugary cereals and fast food. Whole foods are the key to maximising your fibre intake and taking advantage of the many benefits this nutrient provides, including the following:
- Blood sugar regulation
- Hunger signal regulation
- Regularity with bowel movements
- Heart disease risk reduction
- Greater satiety
These are all integral to our gut health, along with helping with weight loss and preventing those sugar cravings which we know take a toll on our gut. Plus, studies show fibre reduces hunger frequency – this means we’ll be less likely to binge on inflammatory foods. But only 5% of us are getting enough fibre, so it’s no surprise so many of us are struggling with digestive troubles and dysregulated moods. 19 to 38 grams of fibre per day is the daily intake recommendation, so add a good amount of wholegrains, legumes, fruit and veggies, nuts and seeds to keep your gut – and brain – happy.
Don’t forget your probiotics
Probiotics are the key to stabilising the balance of our gut microbiome – they introduce billions of healthy bacteria to set up shop in our gut. Research shows the connection between our mental health, our bone health and even our immunity, with one study revealing the gut microbiome regulates the immune response to pathogens. There is one essential step to getting your gut back in order, and that is by loading up on these good bacteria – they work to strengthen the gut lining, reduce inflammation and improve our digestion. You’ll find probiotics in a range of fermented foods, but it’s important that you find these products in the fridge, not on the supermarket shelf. That’s because there should be live bacteria in your fermented foods, and if they’re shelf stable, it’s likely they’ve been heated – thereby killing most of the bacteria – along with having preservatives added. So, next time you’re at the shops, head to the refrigerated section, and look out for the following foods:
- Yoghurt, cultured buttermilk and kefir
- Fermented cheeses
- Sauerkraut, kimchi and pickles
- Tempeh, natto and miso
Get your dose of healthy fats
The war on fat is over – these essential nutrients play a vital role in keeping our gut, and brain, at peak health. For starters, we need these fats to absorb vitamins A, E, D and K – all of which are needed for eye, skin, blood, brain and bone health – but they also keep us fuller for longer, meaning we’re less likely to emulate the cookie monster with our junk food weaknesses. All of this is essential for gut health, which, as we know, contributes to a healthy brain. Add the following to your plate:
- Olive oil and hemp seed oil
- Eggs, ghee and yoghurt
- Nuts and nut butters
- Seeds like flax and hemp
- Coconut and coconut milk
These foods contain healthy fats that have been found to decrease appetite and curb sugar cravings, so add some avo to your morning toast, or drizzle some olive oil over your soup for a gut and brain boost.
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