Have you ever felt ‘butterflies’ in your stomach when you’re nervous? How about having a ‘gut feeling’ about something?
This is because our guts and brains are intimately connected.
We feel butterflies in our stomachs when we’re anxious because our gastrointestinal (GI) systems are incredibly sensitive to our emotions. And, in the same way our emotional state has a direct effect on our stomachs, the health of our gut impacts our emotional and mental wellbeing.
Imbalances in our guts can send signals to our brains, just as feeling imbalanced emotionally sends signals to our guts, which can trigger bloating and digestive discomfort.
Having an upset stomach can cause emotional distress or be the result of it, just as feeling calm and relaxed can both support GI health and be the result of having a healthy gut.
The gut-brain axis
Our brains are connected to our GI systems via the gut-brain axis. They communicate both physically via the central nervous system and biochemically via the production of neurotransmitters.
For example, a large proportion of serotonin – a neurotransmitter which plays a key role in mood and sleep – is produced in the gut.
Gut microbes also produce a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which helps reduce neuronal excitability so that we can relax. Emerging research has found that supplementing with certain strains of probiotics can reduce stress and relieve anxiety by increasing levels of GABA in the gut.
Simple ways to support gut health
Eat oily fish
Omega-3 fats are found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, and also in the brain. Eating a couple of portions of oily fish a week can increase good bacteria in the gut and support memory and mental health.
Eat tryptophan-rich foods
Tryptophan is an amino acid found in foods such as turkey, eggs and cheese. The body converts tryptophan into a chemical called 5-hydroxytryptophan before it’s converted into serotonin which supports sleep and mood.
Eat foods high in polyphenols
Berries, cocoa, nuts, olives and brightly coloured fruit and vegetables are all rich in polyphenols – plant chemicals that increase healthy gut bacteria and support cognitive function.
Get enough sleep
There is a bidirectional relationship between sleep and the gut microbiome. Getting enough sleep reduces inflammation and supports a healthy microbial community, just as having a healthy gut can reduce insomnia and improve circadian rhythms.
Stress impacts our gut microbes, disrupting healthy neurotransmitter regulation. Meditation helps regulate our stress response, maintain a healthy gut and support production of serotonin, GABA and other neurochemicals.
Taking a prebiotic and probiotic can support gut health by encouraging the production of hydrochloric acid and supporting a healthy gut microbiome.
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