We know that the brain plays a key role in all of our bodily functions—it’s the center of our intelligence and the controller of our movements and behaviors. But did you know that you have a “second brain?”
That second brain is found in your gut. Confused yet? Beyond digestion, your gut contains an extensive network of brain-like neurons and an elaborate microbiome that can determine your mental state and risk for neurological conditions. Here’s what to know if you’re looking to care for your gut health and your brain.
The gut-brain connection
The connection between the brain and the gut involves the vagus nerve, which serves as a channel of communication between the nerve cells in the intestinal nervous system and the central nervous system. A significant contributor to this communication is the bacteria in our gut—all 100 trillion of them.
These microbes produce several neurotransmitters and play a role in keeping our immune system strong.
Up to 90% of all serotonin production comes from the second brain in our gut. Low levels of serotonin, known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, have been linked to an increased risk of depression and other health concerns.
GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid)
Gut bacteria produce an amino acid called GABA, which helps calm nerve activity after a state of stress.
The neurotransmitter glutamate affects cognition, learning and memory. Deficiencies of these chemicals have been linked to a number of mental disorders and diseases.
Keeping your gut microbiome healthy
Beyond the production of these critical brain chemicals, your gut microbiome plays a vital role in digestion through the fermentation and absorption of carbohydrates. The good bacteria in your gut help suppress the growth of harmful bacteria that could lead to illness. The gut microbiome is also an integral part of your immune system.
Armed with this knowledge, how do we keep our gut microbiome functioning to support our health? A good first step is to determine your food sensitivities. Everyone has a unique microbiome and digests what they eat differently. Food intolerances differ from food-related allergies, which affect the immune system and can cause a serious or even life-threatening reaction. Sensitivity or intolerance occurs when the digestive tract cannot properly break down and digest a particular food or food component.
Some common intolerances and sensitivities include the following:
- Tyramine (especially linked to migraines)
- Food preservatives and additives
This list is certainly not all-inclusive. Sensitivities and intolerances can vary from one person to another. In addition, sensitivity-related symptoms can vary and include:
- Brain fog
- Joint pain
- Skin issues
- Digestive distress such as gas, bloating and constipation
One way to identify if you are sensitive to something is to do an elimination diet. To do this, you can either eliminate several foods at once or just one food at a time, usually for three to six weeks. Then add back each food individually and monitor how you feel with and without the food in your diet. This trial-and-error method is one of the best ways to determine individual food intolerances.
Keep in mind that even though you can still eat foods you are sensitive to, it can wreak havoc in your gut, creating inflammation that can directly affect the health of your brain.
After determining any sensitivities, it’s time to start incorporating foods that can boost the health of your gut! Here are some foods to prioritize:
Foods rich in probiotics
Probiotics are live bacteria that can improve the number and diversity of the bacteria in your gut. Fermented foods, such as live-culture yogurt, kefir, kombucha tea, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles, contain healthy bacteria (including bifidobacteria and lactobacilli) that can improve the health of your gut lining and help control inflammation. While you can find these in supplement form, it is always better to emphasize food sources first.
Foods low in sugar and high in fiber
A high sugar diet has been linked to increased harmful bacteria in the gut, and sugar is also inflammatory. Elevated blood sugar due to insulin resistance is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.
Try to eliminate as much added sugar as possible. On the other hand, getting in 30 to 40 grams of fiber every day helps feed beneficial bacteria in your gut. Incorporating 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables every day can help you reach that goal.
Load up on flavonols
Make dark chocolate, coffee and tea a part of your daily routine. Flavonols in dark chocolate have been shown to improve cognitive function. Coffee is a rich source of antioxidants and can contribute to a healthy balance of gut bacteria. Black and green tea can increase bifidobacteria in the gut and may potentially decrease harmful bacteria.
By ruling out food sensitivities and incorporating these gut-friendly foods, you can keep your brain and your “second brain” healthy and happy!