The Brain-Gut Connection

What influences ours minds, our moods, and our behaviours are a combination of many things but something we often miss is the role of our gut in all of this. A team of researchers who are investigating neurogastroenterology and motility (digestive movement) are recognising the role of the gut and its ability to almost act as a ‘second’ brain, thereby having the ability to strongly influence our mind, mood and behaviours.

These findings fly in the face of traditional thinking that psychological problems such as depression are caused merely by a chemical imbalance in the brain, but may in fact also be a connected to an imbalance of gut bacteria. Neurotransmitters like serotonin (happy hormone) can also be found in the intestinal tract, or the gut. In fact, the greatest concentration of serotonin, which is involved in mood control, depression and aggression, is found in your intestines, rather than your brain! Every child, mum or CEO that I know could use more serotonin! Consequently, it makes sense to nourish our gut flora to achieve optimal serotonin output, as it can have a profound impact on our mood, psychological health and behaviours.

Our gut floras can be disrupted by too much sugar in the diet, as well as viral and bacterial infections, antibiotics (they kill the good and bad bugs) and birth control pills. Other research has linked gut bacteria to early brain development and behaviour, and possibly gene expression, in the foetus, in mammals1. There appears to be a link between the absence of gut bacteria and gene profiling, that is, the pathways connecting memory, learning and motor control.

Given the evidence of gastrointestinal involvement in a range of neurological diseases, it is easy to see how the balance of gut bacteria can significantly influence psychology and behaviour. To build and strengthen gut bacteria, try to include fermented foods in your diet. This could include lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink, but be careful of added sugar), fermented milk (kefir) and pickled fermentations of cabbage, eggplant, onions, cucumber, turnips, carrots and natto (fermented soy). Other sources of probiotics are:

  • Pickles (a great source of fermented food)
  • Kimchi (a spicy Korean dish, made from fermented cabbage)
  • Tempeh (a fermented soybean; marinate and use as bacon or add to a stir-fry)
  • Coconut yogurt (a dairy-free source of probiotics and enzymes)
  • Miso (nutrient dense, add to water for a cup of soup or add to vegetables for taste)
  • Kombucha tea (a fizzy, fermented black tea full of healthy organisms)
  • A good quality probiotics supplement

Nourishing your gut flora is vital, from cradle to grave, because it can be postulated that you have two brains – one in your cranium, the other in your gastro-intestinal system – and each needs its own particular nourishment. It is vital to remember that 80% of your immune system is located in the gastrointestinal system, which needs to be “reseeded” with good bacteria from time to time. In summary, we now accept that your gut is not only your second brain but also the centre of your immune system. This means that its health impacts upon your brain function, psyche and behaviour, so that optimising gut bacteria is vital for both good physical and mental health.

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