A Health-Supportive Tidbit: The Gut-Brain Connection

By Tiffany Wei, RDN

 

Do you ever feel the “butterfly” in your stomach when you’re nervous? Do you ever experience a reduced appetite when you’re feeling down on one of those days? Maybe you have come across a TikTok video or a headline on this mysterious connection between our gut and brain. So what exactly is this connection that’s been so hyped? 

Did you know that there is indeed a close connection between our brain and the digestive tract? Our guts and brains can communicate with each other – this is known as the gut-brain connection. The brain sends signals to the digestive tract to control the speed of digestion, nutrient absorption, and level of inflammation. On the other hand, our guts are lined with nerve cells that produce 95% of the serotonin in our bodies — a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, appetite, and mood. As a result, what our digestive tract experiences during and after meals will “talk back” to our brains, and affect our mood and emotions.

An essential “manager” of our gut health is the microbiome, a community of good and bad bacteria that coexist in the gut. The good bacteria in our microbiome play a critical role in our health by:

  • Protecting the lining of the gut from harmful toxins and “bad” bacteria 
  • Reducing inflammation and improving nutrient absorption 
  • Activating the direct neural pathways between the gut and brain

The presence of good bacteria impacts the functions of the neural cells lining the digestive tract, and their production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Because there is limited surface area for both good and bad bacteria to proliferate in our guts, it is important to boost the good bacteria and reduce the bad.

How can we do that? This is when prebiotics come into play. Prebiotics are a type of fiber that is not easily digested until it reaches our small intestines. They specifically feed the good bacteria and help them thrive, limiting the space for bad bacteria to grow. When the good bacteria consume the prebiotics, the good bacteria produce a variety of compounds beneficial to our health, including short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), hydrogen, methane, carbon dioxide, and lactate. 

SCFA in particular helps fuel our brain and muscles, enhances vitamin and mineral absorption in the digestive tract, and boosts our immunity. Additionally, SCFA creates a challenging environment for bad bacteria, inhibiting their growth. A win-win situation!

What exactly should we eat to improve our gut health and elevate our mood? Prebiotics generally come from a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, including:

Looking for more food for thought? Here are some suggestions for happy brain food:

We would love to share with you our favorite happy gut-brain recipes to make at home!

  • Jollof Cauliflower with the main ingredient cauliflower rich in a type of prebiotic fiber called inulin, which helps feed the good bacteria in our gut.
  • Ginger Kale Salad uses kale–a dark leafy green–that is rich in brain power-enhancing nutrients, such as lutein, folate, and beta-carotene.
  • Berry Power Water helps us keep hydrated and provides us with anthocyanin from berries, which is a type of antioxidant that helps improve our memory.

Of course, these are just some examples. A general rule of thumb is to include:

  • Fresh veggies or fruits rich in dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals (at least 5 servings/day)
  • Whole grains high in dietary fiber (3-4 servings/day)
  • Animal-based protein (e.g. salmon, tuna) or plant-based protein (e.g. nuts and seeds) high in omega-3 fatty acids (2-3 servings/day)

When considering servings, the serving size of your meals is also important to make sure we are not eating too much of any particular food. For a handy guide to portion sizes, we can estimate serving sizes and compare them to the foods we eat using our own hands:  

Make your gut and brain happy and healthy!