As we enter the New Year, many of us may be thinking about setting new health or lifestyle goals. Focus on nutritious eating is commonly considered when setting health goals, and it is not without merit! Did you know that nutritious eating has benefits for our mental health, in addition to benefiting our physical health?
Maybe you’ve noticed how consuming some foods leaves you feeling energized and uplifted, while other foods contribute to low mood? These experiences are not coincidental, and are a manifestation of the complex relationship between your brain and digestive system. In this blog post, we discuss the brain-gut connection and the intricate relationship between the food on your plate, digestive health, and mental well-being.
The ‘brain-gut connection’ is a common buzzword that is becoming increasingly popular; it generally refers to the communication system between our brain and digestive system. The gut is sometimes called the 'second brain,’ because it essentially has its own network of neurons that work independently from the main brain1 – but communicates and sends signals to the brain through select pathways. However, this gut-brain connection is much more than a simple connection, it is a complicated network that also includes various endocrine, metabolic, and immune communication pathways which all interact with our brain1,2.
The gut communicates with the brain through unique pathways that are not used by any other bodily system, highlighting the significance of the dynamic interplay between the mind and the gut2. Importantly, the communication between the gut and the brain is bi-directional, meaning that, not only does the brain influence thegut, but the gut also has a profound impact on the brain1. The vagus nerve, the longest and most widely distributed nerve in the body, is responsible for transmitting signals from the gut to the brain and vice versa3,4.
However, the signals between the gut and the brain can be influenced by various factors, including the composition of the gut microbiota.The gut microbiota refers to the community of microorganisms, including bacteria, yeasts, and viruses, that inhabit the human gut3. The vagus nerve can sense the signals generated by the gut microbiota and transfer this information to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), where it is processed and an appropriate response is generated4.
Although the brain-gut connection has been evident to scientists since the 19th century1, research on its relationship with mental health was limited until relatively recently. Emerging evidence suggests that the gut-brain connection plays a role in mood and neuropsychiatric disorders, meaning gut health may be critical for mental health and well-being1,3.
When we are stressed, a multi-step process occurs5, which eventually results in the release of cortisol - the primary stress hormone in our bodies. Interestingly, substances produced by our gut microbiota can enter the blood and signal to the brain via the vagus nerve, and can affect processes in our body, such as inducing our stress response system2. In other words, the composition of the gut microbiome can trigger or influence the activity of our stress response system, thereby influencing how we experience stress.
Inflammation of the gut or alterations in the gut microbiome have been linked to various mood and neuropsychiatric disorders1.For example, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) has been linked with depression and anxiety disorders3, and symptoms of depression and anxiety are more frequent among individuals who have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) compared to people with healthy gut microbiomes2,3. This underscores the significance of the gut-brain connection in the broader context of mental health and wellbeing.
Interestingly, the more diverse your diet, the better your microbiome. Research shows that individuals who consume 30 different plant foods a week supports a more diverse microbiome6.In addition, people who consumed more than 30 different plant foods a week had less antibiotic-resistance genes, compared to those who consumed less than 10. The reason for the benefit in variety is different components of different plant foods feed different bacteria.
Mindful eating involves being fully present when you’re eating. Most common practices include getting off of technology when you eat, and thoroughly chewing your food. Through mindful eating, the food is generally chewed more, resulting in better broken-down food, more absorbable components and a higher cognitive awareness of eating. In better breaking down the food, we can better absorb the nutrients, leading to better digestion7.
Fermented foods have anti-oxidant, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and anti-atheroscleroticproperties8. Examples of fermented foods include kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut, and kefir. What makes them so beneficial is that they contain live probiotic cultures. These ‘good’ bacteria continue to add more diversity to the gut microbiome, a benefit mentioned above. If you’re new to fermented foods, start slowly, with 1 TBSP of sauerkraut with your dinner, for example, and work your way up to 1-2 ¼ cup servings per day.
When you have the beneficial bacteria in your gut, dietary fiber is fermented by these bacteria into something called short-chain fatty acids, which also have anti-inflammatory effects. The dietary fiber is essentially food for the beneficial bacteria in your gut, keeping the microbiome balanced. The rough guidelines is a minimum of 25g/fiber per day for women and 38g/day for men.
Understanding the impact of the brain-gut connection on overall wellness emphasizes the importance of maintaining a healthy balance between your brain and gut. As these two systems are intricately connected and communicate with one another, taking consistent steps toward mindful nutrition, stress management, and other positive lifestyle choices is a fundamental investment in not only your gut health, but your mental health and well-being too.
This blog post was written in collaboration with WellIntelTalks, a collective of qualified speakers who provide evidence-based and engaging talks on a variety of mental health and wellness topics to businesses and organizations across Canada. WellIntel’s Speaker database of diverse experts are available in-person or virtually to speak at corporate events, lunch and learn sessions, or facilitate training sessions. Our wellness speakers cover everything from promoting mental wellbeing, to optimizing performance under pressure, to addressing workplace burnout; to view our wide selection of different talks and topics, you can visit our website here!