You may have experienced it before – that nervous sensation in your stomach before an important exam, or those “butterflies” you feel at the sight of a loved one. It’s no coincidence – there’s a real connection between your gut health and brain, known as the gut-brain axis. This phenomenon describes the two-way communication that occurs between your central nervous system (CNS), which includes your brain and spinal cord, and your enteric nervous system (ENS), which is often referred to as the “second brain” due to the complex network of neurons in your gut.
The gut-brain axis is a fascinating system that involves a complex interplay of nerves, neurotransmitters, hormones, and immune cells, allowing your gut and brain to communicate with each other. Signals are constantly being sent back and forth between your gut and brain, influencing your overall health and wellbeing. In this article, Dr Thomas Gurry, co-founder and CEO and Dr Caitlin Hall, Chief Dietitian and Head of Clinical research at myota share their thoughts on the topic.
Your gut and mental health
Research has shown that stress is one of the significant factors that can impact the gut-brain axis. When you’re stressed, your body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can affect the function of your gut. This can lead to changes in gut motility, gut permeability, and the composition of your gut microbiota, ultimately disrupting the communication between your gut and brain.
The gut microbiota, which is the diverse community of microorganisms residing in your gut, also plays a crucial role in the gut-brain axis. The gut microbiota produces neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, which are known to regulate mood, emotions, and cognition. Changes in the gut microbiota composition can impact the production of these neurotransmitters, influencing your mental health.
In fact, the connection between gut health and mental health has been increasingly recognised in recent years. Conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which are characterised by gut dysfunction, have been associated with a higher prevalence of anxiety and depression. Animal studies have also shown that alterations in the gut microbiota can induce anxiety and depressive-like behaviours.
How to improve gut health
Consuming a high-fibre diet from a diverse range of plant-based foods, including prebiotic fibres, can support gut health by improving stool consistency and providing food for beneficial gut bacteria in our gut to ferment. As a by-product of microbial fermentation, our gut bacteria produce very small substances called Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs). These help to promote a healthy gut lining, reduce inflammation, promote mental wellbeing and regulate blood sugar levels. An easy and reliable way to increase the fibre in your diet is to try a complete fibre-blend mix, such as myota.
Limiting highly-processed foods, staying physically active, drinking plenty of water, and prioritising quality sleep are also important for gut health. These lifestyle choices can promote healthy digestion, increase beneficial gut bacteria, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases associated with poor gut health.
How can I improve my gut health through diet, and what specific foods should I be incorporating into my meals?
One simple thing that everyone can do to improve their gut health is to incorporate more prebiotic fibre into their diets. This is a type of fibre found abundantly in several common foods, with the best sources including parsnips, kale, chicory root, garlic, barley and pulses.
At the same time, keep a close eye on the amount of high-fat food, high-sugar food, artificial sweeteners and alcohol that you’re consuming. These can all harm the delicate balance of your microbiome, so try to eat these only very occasionally!
Can probiotics or prebiotics be helpful in improving my gut, and if so, what type of supplements should I take and for how long?
We keep our gut microbes healthy when we consume dietary fibre as part of our everyday diet. However, the latest figures show that 90% of us fail to consume the recommended intake and diversity of fibres. Increasing the variety of foods rich in fibre, like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, will help boost the production of anti-inflammatory SCFAs and balance our immune system. Fibre is also beneficial to promote the feeling of fullness after a meal, balance your blood sugars, and prevent common gut symptoms like constipation, bloating, and diarrhoea. To easily get enough fibre (and the right types) during the winter, add one scoop of a precision-fibre supplement mix to one of your meals daily.
There is some evidence that probiotic foods – like kefir, artisanal cheese, sauerkraut, and kombucha – can promote gut microbiome diversity too. But you don’t need to purchase expensive supplements to reap the benefits of probiotics.
Are there any particular exercise routines or stress reduction techniques that can have the most impact on my gut?
Staying physically active helps your digestive system move and function well. Physical activity has also been shown to increase the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the gut – which in turn reduces inflammation throughout the body and brain. Research shows that exercise has protective effects on the gut by reducing the risk of colon cancer, heart disease, and diverticulosis.
This doesn’t mean that you have to hit the gym daily to maintain a healthy gut: any form of physical movement that gets your muscles working and blood pumping is beneficial, from dancing, skateboarding or walking to cleaning the house!
Cortisol – a stress hormone – has a very harmful effect on your gut microbiome. We all get stressed sometimes, but – with practice – we can become better at handling stress in a way that causes less damage to our bodies. Calming behaviours like mindfulness, yoga and deep breathing are highly effective stress-management solutions that will help keep your gut and immune health protected.
What medications or supplements should I avoid, as they could potentially disrupt my gut microbiome and harm my mental health?
Medications that might pose a threat to your gut microbiome include antibiotics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Don’t avoid taking your doctor-prescribed medications, but instead make an extra effort to care for your gut health whilst you are taking these medications to mitigate any damage that might be done to your microbiome.
Are there any genetic or medical conditions that may increase the risk of gut issues, and how can they be managed or prevented?
Yes, there are several genetic or medical conditions that may increase the risk of gut health issues. Some of these conditions include:
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
IBD is a chronic condition that causes inflammation in the digestive tract. It includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These conditions can cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and rectal bleeding.
Celiac disease is a condition in which the body has an immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. This immune response can damage the lining of the small intestine, leading to symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhoea.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a common condition that affects the large intestine, often causing digestive discomfort and bloating.
It’s always best to follow the treatment plan and medication schedule recommended by your doctor, however, maintaining a regular sleep and exercise schedule and eating a balanced diet has been proven to help alleviate some of the symptoms of these conditions.