Updated: Nov 18, 2022
Maximizing the health of the gut-brain axis!
The Gut-Brain connection may be a key driver of cognitive and mental health
We can promote a healthier gut-brain link through optimization of the microbiome
Our gut immune health is a major driver of gut health
Choosing good sleep and nature time may help us better care for our gut through brain effects
In years past, it was well-accepted that the brain and the body were separate, and that what happened in our bodies didn’t really influence our brains. But research in recent decades has convincingly demonstrated that this is anything but the case. One of the most powerful examples of this reframe revolves around the gut-brain axis, a stunning communication pathway that links what happens in our gut with the state of our brain and vice versa. This has led many to suggest that we may be able to improve our brain health, including our mental health, but improving the quality of the data that runs from our gut to our brain. Here are 3 of the most important ways this may be possible.
1. Prioritize a more balanced gut microbiome
In your gut right now, you have trillions of bacteria communicating with your gut cells and influencing the immune and nerve cells living just below your gut lining. These bacteria make up a big part of what is called the gut microbiome, and it’s thought that their makeup may significantly influence overall gut health as well as the gut-brain connection. Some early research has drawn a connection between changes in the gut microbiome and risk for brain conditions ranging from dementia to depression.
Though it’s too early to say with clarity exactly what may be best for the health of the gut microbiome, some basic steps we may all want to consider include prioritizing dietary fiber (found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds) as well as polyphenols (plant nutrients that provide plants with anti-stress benefits and their vibrant colors), since eating more fiber and polyphenols are thought to help promote a healthy gut microbiome, and have been linked to better brain health.
2. Promote a healthier gut immune state
With the majority of your immune cells based in and around your gut, it’s no surprise that the gut immune state may play a significant role in overall health. There are several connections between gut immune health and brain health. First, signals from the gut immune system could get into our bloodstream and make their way into our brains, where they could affect brain health. Second, gut immune signals could influence the vagus nerve (it has nerve fibers located right next to gut immune cells), carrying data to the brain that could affect mental and overall brain state.
While it’s tough to know exactly how individual aspects of our lifestyle may affect gut immune state, it’s been proposed that too much stress could lead to damage to the gut lining, promoting an influx of molecules from the gut that could activate gut immune cells, leading to full-body inflammation (which has been linked to worse brain health in a number of studies). At a basic level, consuming a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals may help support balanced function of gut immune cells and overall immune system. And certainly, it seems to be the case that the gut microbiome and the gut immune cells spend a lot of time conversing, so the above considerations for gut microbes are likely a good plan for our gut immune cells as well.
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3. Set your brain up for gut-friendliness with good sleep and time in nature
Key to caring for the gut-brain connection is remembering that it’s bidirectional, which means it goes both ways. And while it’s easy to talk about prioritizing gut health to promote brain health, it’s also important that we talk about how to prioritize brain health to promote gut health. Here, neuroscience provides some interesting insights.
In research conducted over the last decade, researchers have shown that our brain function (specifically our decision-making) can be significantly influenced by lifestyle factors. For example, missing out on good sleep is linked to a stronger preference for sugary foods and in adolescents, increased consumption of unhealthy food versus gut-healthy food. This suggests that optimizing our brain health with good sleep may help us make choices that promote gut health.
In another set research, scientists have studied the effects of brief exposures to nature on decision making, and found that even short exposures to nature photos was enough to influence people’s thinking. Specifically, they showed that looking at nature may help us to make less impulsive choices, which is exactly the type of thinking that may help us stick to foods that promote gut wellness, rather than falling victim to the standard ultraprocessed (but often more enticing) diet that has been linked to worse gut and brain health.
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A version of this article I wrote was also published on Psychologytoday.com