top of page
  • Alja Janc

Gut Health: Nourishing Our Second Brain – We are what we consume

Many remote workers have substituted home-cooked meals for takeaway food, which has significantly increased since the outbreak of COVID-19 (Fong et al., 2023). Whilst juggling work deadlines, household chores, and finding some spare time alone or with friends and family, it’s important to maintain a balanced diet.


A big factor in our diet is the gut, often referred to as our second brain. Gut-related topics are not usually put forward as factors of human wellbeing or health. Nevertheless, it is important to mention that 95% of serotonin, referred as the happy hormone, is produced in the gut, and only 5% is produced in the brain (Banskota, Ghia, & Khan, 2017). This suggests that there are more hidden factors in our body that influence our mental wellbeing that it might seem on the surface. This blog is going to focus on diet as one of the primary factors for our wellbeing. In other words, it is going to help us understand how the gut-brain connection works. When talking about this connection, it is essential to also mention the vagus nerve, which has a bidirectional connection to the gut and brain.


Food is essential for our survival, no doubt. But it’s incredible how what we eat is not just about keeping our bodies going. It’s like a secret language that our bodies and minds speak. Eating well is not just about feeling good physically; it can really lift our spirits and help keep our minds in a good place, too. Our food choices are more than just fuel; they reflect our well-being. The saying “we are what we eat” holds true, influencing not just our bodies but also our minds. Balancing a healthy lifestyle is challenging, especially with time constraints. Quick fixes like pre-made lunches or incorporating “healthy” food may seem like a solution, but true change comes when we understand how our diet affects our mood, well-being, and productivity. Embracing small, mindful changes in what we eat can lead to significant improvements, making us consciously aware of what we put into our bodies.



What is gut health and why is it important?


The gut is the biggest digestive organ, immune endocrine organ of the human body, and it also possesses a nervous system, which is relatively independent of the brain (Liang, Wu, & Jin, 2018). It digests and absorbs nutrients from food and extracts waste. The gut provides living space and food for microorganisms, while the microbiota influences the development and function of the gut.  The gut microbiota is a very large community of microorganisms that live inside us in balance to support our overall health, including our digestive health, immunity, hormone balance, and circadian rhythm and mental health.


Gut microbiota is highly sensitive to environmental changes. For instance, stress (high-stress job, sleep quality) and diet (healthy/unhealthy diet). It is important to keep this in mind moving forward, since these changes can lead to physical health issues, and psychological issues (Tooley, 2020):

  • Increased intestinal permeability

  • Inflammatory bowel disease

  • Anxiety

  • Depression


Some common signs that might be related to poor gut health:

  • Digestive symptoms, such as gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, heartburn

  • Sleep disturbances or fatigue

  • Low mood or anxiety



What foods should we pay attention to have a balanced gut microbiota?


However, with the right interventions, such as diet, we can prevent the above-mentioned outcomes, as well as improve our mood, emotional regulation (Vuong et al., 2017), and our cognitive abilities; learning capacity and memory (Manderino et al., 2017).


What we consume is metabolized by different bacteria. In recent times, there has been a noticeable shift in the composition of gut bacteria, with a decline in those that thrive on fiber and a significant increase in bacteria that metabolize animal protein and fat, particularly in urban areas (De Filippo et al., 2017). While bacteria processing animal proteins and fats are crucial for a well-rounded diet, its essential to highlight the importance of fibre for maintain a balanced gut microbiota.


We can think of fiber as the unsung hero in your diet- it, plays a crucial role in supporting the health of your gut. Despite the current trend, ensuring an adequate intake of fiber is key for fostering a diverse and resilient community of beneficial bacteria in your digestive systems.

This pursuit, however, faces formidable challenges, particularly in a world where fast foods and processed options, often lacking in essential nutrients, are globally on the rise (Martini et al., 2021). The ubiquity of these quick and convenient choices is undeniable, especially for those navigating the demands of a busy lifestyle. Yet, its crucial to approach them with a measured perspective. While the allure of these time-saving options is understandable, moderation is the key. Unchecked consumption of fried and fast foods might damage the intestinal lining, potentially. causing leaky gut syndrome (Camilleri, 2019). This syndrome extends beyond the digestive realm, resonating in various aspects of our well-being. This can cause toxins to seep out into the bloodstream from the gut lining, leading to obesity, bowel diseases and anxiety (Camilleri, 2019). To steer ourselves towards the path of optimal gut health, a recalibration of our dietary choice is in order. It is time to elevate our awareness of what we consume, recognizing that our physical and mental well-being is intricately tied to the health of our gut microbiota.




The gut-brain connection


The profound impact of our food choices resonates in the bidirectional relationship between our gut and brain, encapsulated by the fascinating concept of gut-brain axis – a dynamic interplay between the central nervous system (CNS) and the digestive tract (Wood, 2007). This connection plays a significant role in influencing both our overall wellbeing and mood. For instance, it influences hunger and satiety, mood, digestion, food preferences and cravings, cognitive function, stress levels, and behaviour (Carabotti et al., 2016). Understanding the intricate connections between the gut and the brain is crucial for comprehending the broader implications on mental health. 


A healthy gut, characterized by balanced microbiota, proper functioning of the gut-brain signalling pathways, and minimal inflammation, is likely to contribute positively to both well-being and mood. Conversely, disruption in this axis can potentially contribute to the development of exacerbation of mood disorders and impact overall mental health. By embracing a conscientious and balanced approach to our dietary habits, we embark on a journey not just towards a healthier gut but also towards a harmonious synergy between mind and body. As we navigate the modern culinary landscapes, lets choose to nourish ourselves in a way that fosters vitality, resilience, and profound connection between the choices we make and the well-being we cultivate. 


A list of a few recommended foods for gut health:

  • Probiotics are live microorganisms, usually bacteria or yeast, that confer health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. Often referred to as “good bacteria” Probiotic administration has been found to improve memory (Vouong et al., 2017): fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha. *When choosing probiotic foods, check labels for live, active cultures, which indicates the bacteria in the foods are still living. For instance, when buying kombucha or sauerkraut reach for refrigerated brands with live cultures. Shelf-stable products in a can or in a jar unlikely contain living microbes. 

  • Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers and compounds that serve as a food source for beneficial microorganisms in the gut, promoting their growth and activity. They have been found to reduce certain negative behaviours and boost our mood and cognition (Vouong et al., 2017): they are found in certain foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.

  • Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory foods (Robertson et al., 2017): walnutsflax seeds, supplements such as algae oil, fruits such as berries and grapes, vegetables such as broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes.



The role of the vagus nerve (vagal nerves):


As mentioned earlier gut-brain axis plays a role in bidirectional communication between the two organs. These two organs are connected because in the developing human embryo these two organs arose from the same cells. While they grew apart to be in two different parts of our body, they remain connected throughout our lives by the vagus nerve. Before digging into the importance of vagus nerve, its relation to gut and overall wellbeing, and how we can stimulate it, let’s first say a few words about what it is and how it works.


Basic facts about the vagus nerve (Breit, Kupferberg, Rogler, & Hasler, 2018):

  • Carries an extensive range of signals from digestive system and organs to the brain and vice versa.

  • The tenth cranial nerve, extending from its origin in the brainstem through the neck and the thorax down to the abdomen.

  • Involuntary actions

  • Responsible for digestion, immune system responses, mood, heart rate, blood pressure, speech, and taste

  • Carries signals between the brain, heart, and digestive system.

  • Controls the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest state”)


Vagus nerve acts as a highway between the gut and the brain, which is responsible for regulation of gastrointestinal homeostasis and connecting emotional and cognitive areas of the brain with the gut functions (Carabotti et al., 2015). It carries neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine from the gut to the brain. These neurotransmitters affect appetite control, pain sensations, mood, and memory (Tran et al., 2019). The vagus nerve can also sense and tell the brain about and inflammation occurring in the body, and it can also inhibit inflammation in the body (Mandaleni, & Rayi, 2021). The activity of the vagus nerve is associated with health, well-being, relaxation, and even emotions like empathy, whereas decreased cardiac vagus activity relates to risk factors, such as morbidity, and stress (Thayer, & Sternberg, 2010).  



There are new treatment options for modulating the brain-gut axis, one of them being vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). These treatments have shown to be beneficial in mood, and anxiety disorders (Berry, 2013). Vagus nerve also represents an important link between nutrition, and psychiatric, neurological, and inflammatory diseases (Breit et al., 2018). Now that we have given a bit of an introduction to the vagus nerve, let’s see what foods trigger the vagus nerve and therefore improve communication from the gut to the brain, and which foods are damaging to the vagus nerve and might prohibit gut-brain connection:


Foods that are already a part of a healthy diet increase vagal tone:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

  • Pistachios

  • Probiotic foods

  • Adequate vitamin B12

  • High-choline foods


This list gives us some idea what might be beneficial for vagus nerve activity. Nevertheless, its worth elaborating on high-choline foods. These types of food help the vagus nerve carry out its many functions. Foods like sunflower seeds, red potatoes, kidney beans, quinoa.


As we have mentioned earlier fried or trans-fat food in our diet are bad for our gut microbiota as well as for activation of the vagal nerve. When we eat foods that cause inflammation in the body, we're also inflaming the vagus nerve, which limits its ability to deliver messages effectively. 


However, the right food is not the only stimulation for the vagus nerve. It can also be stimulated through:

  •  diaphragmatic breathing, 

  • singing, humming,

  •  cold-water swimming, 

  • yoga,

  •  sound baths.

This stimulation lowers blood pressure, reduces the body’s response to stress, and improves digestion.



Our daily food choices have a profound impact on us in various ways. It’s important to acknowledge that sustaining a perfect diet constantly can be challenging, and that is okay. Allowing ourselves the occasional “cheat day” is a healthy approach. 

This blog aims to shift perspectives on the enchanting influence of the foods we consume. By paying attention to what we eat, we can become more aware of how specific foods affect our well-being. The intricate link between the gut and brain, operating bidirectionally through the vagus nerve, highlights our holistic nature. Recognizing this interconnectedness reinforces the idea that what we consume has a reciprocal influence, fostering a concise yet thoughtful approach to our relationship with food.



Turning insights into actions and recipes for a quick and healthy meal:


Here I am sharing some links for a fast and nutritious meals that emphasise gut health which you can try making at home ☺ :





References:

Banskota, S., Ghia, E. J., & Khan, I. W. (2019). Seratonin in the gut: Blessing or a curse. Biochimie, 161, 56-64. 

Bonaz B, Bazin T., & Pellissier S. (2018). The Vagus Nerve at the Interface of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Front Neurosci, 12 (49). doi: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00049 

Breit S, Kupferberg A, Rogler G and Hasler G (2018) Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Front. Psychiatry, 9 (44). doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044 

Camilleri, M. (2019). The Leaky Gut: Mechanisms, Measurement and Clinical Implications in Humans, Gut, 68(8), 1516-1526. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6790068/


De Filippo, C., Di Paola, M., Ramazzotti, M., Albanese, D., Pieraccini, G., Banci, E., et al. (2017). Diet, environments, and gut microbiota. a preliminary investigation in children living in rural and urban burkina faso and italy. Front. Microbiol, 8. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2017.01979 


Fong M., Scott S., Albani V., & Brown H. (2023). The Impact of COVID-19 Restrictions and Changes to Takeaway Regulations in England on Consumers’ Intake and Methods of Accessing Out-of-Home Foods: A Longitudinal, Mixed-Methods Study. Nutrients, 15(16), 3636. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15163636


Liang S, Wu X., & Jin F. (2018). Gut-Brain Psychology: Rethinking Psychology From the Microbiota–Gut–Brain Axis. Front. Integr. Neurosci, 12 (33). doi: 10.3389/fnint.2018.00033 


Mandalaneni, K., & Rayi, A. (2021). Vagus Nerve Stimulator. StatPearls. 

Manderino, L., Carroll, I., Azcarate-Peril, M. A., Rochette, A., Heinberg, L., Peat, C., et al. (2017). Preliminary evidence for an association between the composition of the gut microbiome and cognitive function in neurologically healthy older adults. J. Int. Neuropsychol. Soc. 23, 700–705. doi: 10.1017/ S1355617717000492 

Martini, D., Godos, J., Bonaccio, M., Vitaglione, P., & Grosso, G. (2021). Ultra-processed foods and Nutritional Dietary Profile: A Meta-Analysis of Nationally Representative Samples. Nutrients, 13(10), 33-90. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8538030/

Robertson, R. C., Seira Oriach, C., Murphy, K., Moloney, G. M., Cryan, J. F., Dinan, T. G., et al. (2017). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids critically regulate behaviour and gut microbiota development in adolescence and adulthood. Brain Behav. Immun. 59, 21–37. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2016. 07.145 

Tran, N., Zhebrak, M., Yacoub, C., Pelletier, J., & Hawley, D. (2019). The gut-brain relationship: Investigating the effect of multispecies probiotics on anxiety in a randomized placebo-controlled trial of healthy young adults. Affect Disorder, 252-271. 


Tooley, L. K. (2020). Effects of the Human Gut Microbiota on Cognitive Performance, Brain Structure, and Function, Nutrients, 12(10). 


Thayer, F. J., & Sternber, M. E., (2010). Neural aspects of immunodulation: focus on the vagus nerve, Brain Behav Immun, 24(8), 1223-8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20674737/

Vuong, H. E., Yano, J. M., Fung, T. C., and Hsiao, E. Y. (2017). The microbiome and host behavior. Ann. Rev. Neurosci. 40, 21–49. doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro- 072116- 031347 

Wood, J. D. (2007). Neuropathophysiology of functional gastrointestinal disorders. World J. Gastroenterol. 13, 1313–1332. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v13.i9.1313


25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Commenti


bottom of page