By Russell Skinner, MD.
Have you ever considered that there is more in your gut than your latest meal?
The gut and brain may appear unconnected, each having different functions, but there’s a distinct correlation. What’s more, recent studies show that your brain affects your gut health and your gut may even affect your brain health.
The human gut contains over 500 million neurons—it’s practically a brain unto itself. These neurons are connected to your brain through nerves in your nervous system.
The communication system between your gut and brain is called the gut-brain axis.
Your gut and brain are also connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Interestingly, many of these neurotransmitters are also produced by your gut cells and the trillions of microbes living there. A large proportion of serotonin, for example, is produced in the gut.
A few groups of foods are specifically beneficial for the gut-brain axis. Here are some of the most important ones:
Omega-3 fats: These are found in oily fish and also in high quantities in the human brain. Studies in humans and animals show that omega-3s can increase good bacteria in the gut and reduce risk of brain disorders.
Fermented foods: Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and cheese all contain healthy microbes such as lactic acid bacteria. Fermented foods have been shown to alter brain activity.
High-fiber foods: Whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables all contain prebiotic fibers that are good for your gut bacteria.
Polyphenol-rich foods: Cocoa, green tea, olive oil and coffee all contain polyphenols, which are plant chemicals that are digested by your gut bacteria. Polyphenols increase healthy gut bacteria and may improve cognition.
Tryptophan-rich foods: Tryptophan is an amino acid that is converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin. Foods that are high in tryptophan include turkey, eggs and cheese.
Understanding the link between the digestive tract and the brain is important to promoting optimal gut and mental wellbeing. Remember a healthy gut equals a healthy brain.