The health community is increasingly discussing the importance of the gut, and not just for its role in digestive health. Studies are demonstrating that the gut informs whole-body health, and mental health in particular.1
The term ‘the second brain’ has even been coined to describe the gut.2 After all, the commonality of phrases like ‘go with your gut’ and ‘gut instinct’ tell us that, on some level, we’ve known for a long time how the gut can function a little like our brain.
Hungry to find out more, Create Health recently attended a talk on the Gut-Brain connection. Here’s what we discovered.
The gut-brain axis
When we talk about the gut-brain connection, we are referring to what is called the ‘gut-brain axis’. This essentially is bi-directional communication between the gut and the brain, via the vagus nerve.
You might assume that the brain sends more signals to the gut than the other way around. But actually, 80-90% of all messages that travel through the gut-brain axis are delivered from the gut to the brain. That means the gut is far more intelligent than we historically realised.
How is this?
Surprisingly, there are many more neurons in the gut than in the brain. Though not in a conscious fashion, gut neurons have been shown to be capable of thinking, remembering and learning. Impressive stuff.
How does mental health come into it?
Serotonin, dopamine, melatonin, noradrenaline, and GABA are examples of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate mood, cognition, learning, sleep, appetite and much more. And they’re all found in the gut.
Moreover, 50% of all dopamine and 95% of all serotonin, the ‘happy’ chemicals associated with drive and pleasure, are found in the gut. This is because the gut actually produces them in the microbiome (our gut glora).
Vagal tone refers to the efficiency of messages travelling up and down the vagus nerve between the gut and the brain. Studies have shown that people with neurological disorders, like anxiety, depression and OCD have low vagal tone. Equally, high vagal tone is associated with the body’s restful parasympathetic phase.
Simply put, if we want these neurochemicals to be produced in the optimal amounts – which, of course, we do – then we need our gut to be in good health.
Mental Health Issues on the rise
It’s hard to ignore the news that mental health issues are increasing; depression and anxiety being the most common, alongside panic disorder, OCD, and PTSD. Currently 1 in 4 people in the UK are diagnosed with a mental health issue.
Being as many of our vital neurochemicals are produced in the gut, it’s not a stretch to posit that these conditions can be exacerbated by, if not partially to blame for, compromised gut flora.
Even Autistic Spectrum Disorder is being discussed alongside gut health, as faecal samples of patients showed less diverse gut microbiota than people without autism.3
Hard to stomach
However, having a healthy gut is no mean feat. The gastrointestinal tract is 9 metres long from one end to the other. It’s hollow, exposed at both ends, and food and bacteria are almost constantly passing through.
Plainly speaking, it’s very easy to disrupt the microbiome, which is home to over 1000 species and 7,000 sub species of chemicals. Especially in our current way of life, we’re seeing huge numbers of digestive disorders, like IBS and IBD.
Aside from what we eat, our gut flora is affected by many other factors. Foremost our mother’s diet and how she fed us as babies. Add to this our use of medicine and other drugs, geographical and environmental factors, and stress.
Most of us work long hours, feel more stress, live more sedentary lifestyles – often in polluted cities – and eat far more processed, nutrient-deficient foods than ever before. So it’s a tough problem to solve.
Working towards happier guts
You may not be able to move to the countryside or stop taking your medication, but there are actionable steps we can all take to make our guts that little bit happier.
- Remove as much processed food from your diet as possible, instead try to eat food cooked from scratch, including 7-9 vegetables a day.
- Cut down sugar, sulphites, and toxins – these include alcohol, too much caffeine, cigarettes, chemicals in skincare and beauty products.
- The FODMAP diet helps you to find out if you are allergic to any food that you might be eating – dairy and gluten being the most common.
- Drink enough water (1.50-2L a day, more if you exercise or sweat a lot).
- Add prebiotic foods to your diet, like live cultures in yogurts, and fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut. Also eat probiotic foods, like oats, onions, leeks, garlic, bananas and artichokes.
- Research what you commonly eat to see if you’re getting the right mix of vitamins – vitamin D, B vitamins, folic acid, magnesium, zinc, iron, manganese are all vital for the brain. Omega 3 is a fantastic anti-inflammatory and is present in oily fish, flax seed, chia, walnuts and seaweed.
It’s perhaps easier said than done, but getting 8 hours of sleep and practicing mindfulness techniques also limit the stress on our minds and bodies. Activities like yoga, meditation, exercise, long walks, and journaling are all helpful.
So there we have it – you’re armed and ready to take care of your second brain, so that it’ll take care of your first brain.