You probably have never thought about what you need to feed your brain, or that there is a gut-brain connection. Our brains work so well, we rarely think of the powerhouse it is in all of our functioning of our body. Feeding it good nutrients and making sure those nutrients reach the brain is important to your health. It all starts in the gut.
Your gut is considered your “second brain.” Because of recent scientific discoveries about the vagus nerve, the enteric nervous system, and the amazing influence your gut microbes can have, it’s no wonder what you eat feeds not only your body but can directly affect your brain.
I find it amazing (but not too surprising).
What is the Gut-Brain Connection
The gut-brain connection is very complex, and to be honest, science is still learning lots about it!
There seem to be multiple things working together. Things like:
- The vagus nerve that links the gut directly to the brain;
- The “enteric nervous system” (A.K.A. “second brain) that helps the complex intricacies of digestion flow with little to no involvement from the actual brain;
- The massive amount of neurotransmitters produced by the gut;
- The huge part of the immune system that is in the gut, but can travel throughout the body; and,
- The interactions and messages sent by the gut microbes.
This is complex.
And amazing, if you ask me. Let’s briefly discuss each.
Vagus Nerve – An Important Nerve that Is Virtually Unknown
There is a nerve that runs directly from the gut to the brain, the vagus nerve.
Can you guess which direction 90% of the transmission is?
Not from your brain to your gut (which is what we used to think), but from your gut up to your brain.
This is a great article on the Vagus Nerve and how to stimulate it.
The Enteric Nervous System and Neurotransmitters
Would you believe me if I told you that the gut has more nerves than your spinal cord?
That is why it’s referred to as the “second brain.”
If you think about it, controlling the complex process of digestion (i.e. digestive enzymes, absorption of nutrients, the flow of food, etc.) should probably be done pretty “smartly”…don’t you think? It makes sense that the gut has the ability to control digestion when you think about a paraplegic who can still eat and digest.
Guess how these nerves speak to each other and to other cells? By chemical messengers called “neurotransmitters.”
In fact, many of the neurotransmitters that have a strong effect on our mood are made in the gut! e.g. a whopping 95% of serotonin is made in your gut, not in your brain!
The Immune System of the Gut
Because eating and drinking is a huge portal where disease-causing critters can get into your body, it makes total sense that much of our defense system would be located there too, right? Seventy-five percent of our immune system is in our gut!
The immune cells can move throughout the entire body and cause inflammation just about anywhere, right?
Well, if they’re “activated” by something in the gut, they can potentially wreak havoc anywhere in the body. Including the potential to cause inflammation in the brain. The gut and the brain have a complex connection. There is a blood brain barrier that tries to prevent this inflammation in your brain, but that barrier can be crossed.
Your friendly neighborhood gut residents. You have billions of those little guys happily living in your gut. They do amazing things like help you digest certain foods, make certain vitamins, and even help regulate inflammation!
But more and more evidence is showing that changes in your gut microbiota can impact your mood, and even other, more serious, mental health issues.
How Do These All Work Together for Brain Health?
The honest answer to how these things all work together is that we really don’t know just yet. More and more studies are being done to learn more.
One thing is becoming clear. A healthy gut goes hand-in-hand with a healthy brain!
So, how do you feed your brain?
There are some things to consider to help feed your brain.
- Eat a variety of minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods is required because no nutrients work alone.
- Eat more fiber in fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds to help feed your awesome gut microbes.
- Consume Omega-3 fats such as fatty fish, walnuts, algae, and seeds like flax, chia, and hemp. These are well-known to be inflammation-lowering, brain boosters. You can also take fish oil if you need more. My favorite is Nordic Naturals brand. There are several types with different amount of DHA and EPA, so check with your pharmacist to help you determine which is best for you.
- Supplement with probiotics and a good digestive enzyme to help with digestion of your food so that you can absorb the nutrition in your foods.
Recipe (Gut food fiber, Brain food omega-3): Blueberry Hemp Overnight Oats
- 1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)
- 1 cup oats (gluten-free)
- 1 cup almond or coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon chia seeds
- 2 tablespoons hemp seeds
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 banana, sliced
- ¼ cup chopped walnuts
- Blend blueberries in the food processor until smooth.
- Mix blueberries, oats, almond milk, chia seeds, hemp seeds in a bowl with a lid. Let set in fridge overnight.
- Split into two bowls and top with cinnamon, banana, and walnuts. Add a few fresh blueberries if you wish.
Serve & enjoy! (Recipe can be halved)
Tip: Your gut microbes love to eat the fiber in the blueberries, oats, seeds, and nuts. Meanwhile, your brain loves the omega-3 fats in the seeds and nuts.