The Brain-Gut Connection: Improve your Gut Health and Improve Your Mind

Young couple choosing food in a supermarket

Your Gut Bacteria Has More to Do with Your Feelings Than You Think

Gut bacteria impacts nearly every organ, especially your brain. Think about that “butterflies in your stomach” feeling before a big presentation. Or maybe you’re anticipating a difficult final exam and the nervousness in your stomach makes you bolt to the bathroom.

In those situations, when you are feeling anxious, nervous, or antsy, you can understand how your gut and brain are connected. Worry, pain, embarrassment, and other uncomfortable thoughts can create stomach problems like nausea, constipation, and diarrheaWhat impacts your brain impacts your gut and vice versa.

Scientists even coined “gut-brain axis” to describe how intricately linked your brain and your gut are.

Managing the Relationship Between Your Gut and Your Brain

Your gut microbiota consists of a colony of about 10 trillion bacteria. This gut bacteria play big roles in health and disease.

The right gut bacteria can keep you lean, healthy, and happy. You’ll always have some bad bacteria. That’s normal. But to allow your gut and brain to communicate effectively, you need the right balance of gut bacteria.

A Bad Gut Can Lead to Disease

When too many bad ones take over — sometimes called bacterial overgrowth — you become more prone to diabetes, obesity, food cravings, allergies, some cancers, Alzheimer’s, and more.

Keeping those good gut bugs working well requires a healthy diet, exercise, stress management, good sleep, and the right nutrients.

On the other hand, a nutrient-poor diet, antibiotics, stress, lack of sleep, and other conditions can reduce the quality and diversity of your bacteria. When the bad gut bacteria take over, your body suffers, especially your brain.

Bad gut bacteria can get past your blood-brain barrier. Those bad bacteria can create inflammation in your brain, impact mood and behavior, and increase your risk of brain-related disorders.

A Healthy Gut Can Boost Mood, Immunity, and Impact Behavior

Numerous studies show that gut bacteria impact brain chemistrymood, and behavior by stimulating the release of neurotransmitters.

In one study, researchers found that two kinds of good bacteria were missing from depressed subjects, but not from individuals who had a high quality of life. Depressed people also had higher amounts of bacteria that contribute to Crohn disease, an inflammatory gut disease that can create abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, and other problems.

The Gut-Brain Axis and Stress

Chronic stress can negatively impact your gut. Some of the repercussions are obvious. When you’re stressed out, you’re more likely to make poor decisions, grab unhealthy foods, and sleep less soundly.

Others aren’t. When you get stressed out, your gut flora changes. In animal studies, when researchers separated baby monkeys from their moms early, their stress hormones kicked in and their immune response became worse.

What you think can even impact how you secrete digestive enzymes and other digestive functions. In fact, digestive system disorders often have close ties with your brain. Gut problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis can impact emotions, behaviors, and how you function on a daily basis.

Connecting your gut and brain are 500 million neurons. Your gut can alter your brain through these neuron pathways and immune messengers called cytokines. One of the biggest nerves, the vagus nerve, sends signals from your gut to your brain and back.

Stress can impair those signals. One animal study found when stress impacted their vagus nerve, these animals also had gut problems. Human studies also show a reduced function of the vagus nerve in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s.

The Root Cause of Poor Health: Inflammation

Inflammation can also create a lack of diverse bacteria that leads to bacterial overgrowth.

Your gut bacteria monitor what passes into your body and what gets excreted.  An activated immune system that never gets the chance to recover can create chronic inflammation, a type of inflammation that exists from constant stress on the body. This inflammation can contribute to brain disorders like depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

When bad bacteria make inflammatory toxins, your gut barrier can also get leaky. That means things that shouldn’t get through your gut wall — things like bacteria and inflammatory toxins — do, a wide variety of brain disorders can occur like severe depression, dementia, and schizophrenia.

A Healthy Gut Can Lead To Happiness

Poor gut health can also lead to mood disorders like depression and anxiety. For decades, experts believed anxiety and depression contributed to problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, diarrhea, bloating, pain, and an upset stomach.

However, newer research shows the opposite happens too: Gut problems can send signals to your nervous system that can change your mood. People with inflammatory bowel diseases, for instance, often suffer from depression too.

That makes sense when your gut makes many neurotransmitters like serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These chemicals help your gut and brain communicate and control feelings and emotions. Serotonin helps you feel happyGABA helps control fear and anxiety.

 The amino acids that your gut metabolizes also impact your brain. Your body converts tryptophan, for instance, into your feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin and your sleep-well neurotransmitter melatonin.

How To Fix Your Poor Gut Health with Your Diet

The foods you eat provide amino acids and other nutrients that support the communication between your brain and your gut. Overall, your diet plays a significant role to support gut and brain health. The foods you eat can impact you physically and mentally, impacting your mood while supporting the right gut bacteria.

The wrong foods — such as processed foods with added sugar and additives — can be addicting and increase inflammatory diseases, like obesity. They can lead to bacterial overgrowth and harm your brain.

Sugar especially can stall the production of healthy gut bacteria. It also increases your risk of obesity and diseases like diabetes. Sugar also impacts your brain. Researchers connect overeating, poor memory, learning disorders, and depression with eating too much sugar.

The right foods, on the other hand, help to maintain a healthy, diverse colony of gut bacteria. Healthy, nutrient-dense foods keep your brain functioning well and may minimize your risk for brain disorders like depression.

The best diet for your gut–and brain health–include:

Anti-Inflammatory Fats

Omega-3 fatty acids can lower inflammation, keep the right balance of gut flora, and support the gut-brain axis. Wild-caught fish, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Probiotic-Rich Foods

Foods like sauerkraut and kimchi provide the probiotics or healthy gut bacteria that support gut bacteria balance.

Prebiotic-rich foods

Prebiotics, or fiber that your gut flora metabolize, can also boost brain health. One study found that taking a specific prebiotic for three weeks could reduce amounts of the stress hormone cortisol. Prebiotics can also improve anxiety and depression.

Plant Foods Rich in Fiber

Fiber helps your gut microbes create short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). One SCFA in particular — called butyrate — helps form the blood-brain barrier. Good fiber sources include:

  • Leafy greens
  • Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Low-sugar fruits like avocado and berries

A healthy diet supports a healthy gut, which helps you better digest food. Gut microbes metabolize bile acids, for instance, which helps you absorb dietary fat. Animal studies show stress can lower bile acid production.

MaxLiving Core and Advanced Nutrition Plans contain plenty of these healthy gut bacteria foods.

Exercise to Improve Gut Health and Boost Mood

Regular exercise can help support a healthy gut balance. Among its many other benefits, exercise can improve memory and thinking as well as mood disorders like depression and anxiety. You don’t need much to get those benefits: Just 30 minutes of brisk walking can help your gut and mood.  You feel better, metabolize your food better, and your brain works better.

Think Happy Thoughts and Reduce Stress

An imbalance of gut bacteria can also lead to many stress-related conditions including anxiety and depression. On the other hand, brain disorders like depression and stress can negatively impact your gut.

Keeping a positive mindset and finding something that helps you de-stress — yoga, meditation, or deep breathing are great ways — can support gut and brain health.

Scientists are still putting together the pieces about how gut health impacts your brain. Newer studies will reveal more clues about how these two organs communicate.

You don’t need to wait, though, to support your gut and brain right now. What you eat, the nutrients you get, and the way you live can keep those good gut bacteria in check so you feel healthy, focused, productive, and free from disease.